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Symphony Patches Up Financial Services Collaboration

All modern businesses care about IT security - or they should. But there are industries and verticals that have a greater level of focus on security due to stringent regulations and compliance demands. Case in point, financial services.

With regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley and FINRA requiring financial services firms to maintain a tight grip on information sharing and data protection, there is a strong potential that effective collaboration could suffer at the hands of security demands. Enter Symphony.

Symphony is a new company that rose from the financial services industry itself with the goal of becoming the go-to communication and collaboration tool for financial services firms. The company is headed up by CEO David Gurle, who is well-known in the tech world for his work at Microsoft, Skype (pre-Microsoft acquisition), and Thomson Reuters.

Symphony's Evolving Story
I recently spoke with David Gurle, in addition to marketing heads Al Silverstein and Barry Castle, to get an inside-look at Symphony -- complete with a demo of the alpha version currently being tested among select institutional investors.

Speaking of institutional investors, this is one of the elements that makes Symphony's story especially unique and interesting. The company came to be as part of the process Goldman Sachs undertook a couple of years ago when looking to design a new communications platform that would use open source components and take into account regulatory requirements specific to financial services.

Goldman Sachs teamed up with 14 other financial services companies including JPMorgan, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley, to financially back the creation of Symphony Communication Services Holdings LLC, raising $66 million in fall 2014. The first big move with these funds was the purchase of Perzo, a relatively young instant messaging startup based in Palo Alto, which was subsequently formed into Symphony. David Gurle, Perzo's founder, was a natural choice to take the lead as CEO of the new company, especially as Goldman Sachs saw the value of extending this idea to a commercial product.

Symphony is currently in alpha testing mode, with an expansion of its user base planned for a beta testing phase this spring, and a general availability release slated for later this summer that will boast a full feature set.

"While we have this great consortium of financial institutions together, we have a much greater vision here at Symphony to create a communications platform that addresses the needs of all enterprises large and small," Silverstein told me. "[That includes] professionals from financial services industries to healthcare, to local governments and educational institutions."

"Anybody that really values the high-value content communication of those ideals -- improvement of workflows, integration of content -- all of those things are important to us and important to the clients that we're currently working with, and the ones that we will be working with when we launch our product later this year for the general public," Silverstein said.

Solving Communication Problems
As it exists right now, Symphony is a secure hosted service that works across many different platforms and devices. Depending on the unique requirements of an individual firm, Symphony's open design concept makes it able to be plugged into existing systems, or it can run as a standalone messaging platform. The team at Symphony is currently in the process of fleshing out a full feature set that will include screen sharing as well as voice and video meetings, but Castle explained during the demo that it was really important to them to get the secure messaging piece right first.

Encryption is a critical element of Symphony's appeal, with encrypted messaging leveraged for the communications features of the tool, which enables the message owner to control the data with encryption keys. This sort of security makes it so that data is controlled as long as users maintain control over their computing device.

Gurle commented that financial services professionals heavily depend on the exchange of information in order to meet their business goals. Specifically in the last 10 to 20 years, these professionals have been increasingly relying on messaging communications. The problem that presented itself came from the "explosion" of different messaging tools being used. This led to the fragmentation of data, the creation of silos within the organization, additional infrastructure costs, and last but not least, exposure from the use of messaging systems that aren't compliant. This non-compliance aspect is especially critical, as businesses not only can be fined for failing to comply with regulations, but there could be data leaks and potentially devastating impact on a firm's reputation.

These are the core communication problems that drove those 15 financial services companies to buy Perzo and create Symphony, Gurle said. One of the main goals these companies are striving toward with Symphony is a streamlining of communications, paring down the often 10-15 different messaging systems to a single platform. Another objective is to improve external communication, Gurle said.

The third goal is to have a platform that can be embedded into their organization's applications. These financial services companies have already spent billions of dollars developing their systems, so Symphony needs to be able to work with these other systems. These companies also recognize the importance of having proper communications channels in those portals because it's all about information exchange and trading, Gurle said.

In the demo, the capability that stuck out to me the most was the ability to create custom filters that then pull specific, relevant content directly from Twitter streams and populate information as it comes in. I could see this being particularly useful for any financial services professional monitoring a company or stock. With that sort of real-time communication, smarter decisions can be made at a faster clip.

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