Nearly 20 years ago, Visa executives celebrated a milestone for the card brand's global VisaNet payments network. The system could finally handle 1,000 transaction messages per second.

"That was a staggering number back then," said Manny Trillo, Visa's senior vice president of network processing. "It was a big milestone for us."

Ten years ago, VisaNet's peak message rate was 5,546 transactions per second, with a system capacity of 8,187 transactions per second. The latest peak message rate Visa documented was 13,236 transaction messages per second during a one hour-period in the late morning Pacific time on December 23, 2013.

But the company's technology is built to handle much higher loads. Last month, VisaNet recorded 56,582 transaction messages per second during the company's annual network stress test, which acts as a trial run for the upcoming holiday season. During last year's test, it reached a peak of about 47,000.

Visa has conducted this annual test since 1992, seeking to validate system hardware and assure all business applications and system connections can handle heavy transaction loads during the busiest shopping time of the year.

"We push VisaNet to the limits so that we understand the processing profile beyond what we would actually do at these peak times," Trillo said.  Such aggressive measures allow Visa to get a clear picture of where bottlenecks might occur or anticipate any trouble in storage peripherals or connectivity between systems.

The surge in card payments is in line with a steady shift away from cash and checks. Credit, debit and prepaid cards accounted for two thirds of noncash payments in the U.S. in 2012, up from one third in 2000, according to the 2013 Federal Reserve Payments Study. In the same period of time, the number of check payments declined by more than 50%. 

Visa is responding to this change in payment habits, but it must also test its systems to determine the effect of the many updates it makes to business applications each year, Trillo added.

"We really endeavor to understand our choke points," Trillo said. The stress test includes simulated system failures that allow Visa to establish procedures if any link in payment processing is suddenly cut off, he said.

The new level of transaction capacity illustrates the power and advancement that Visa has made over the years in developing a reliable network, said Paul Martaus, a merchant acquirer consultant and industry researcher.

"It's a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts for Visa in addressing all of the requirements over the years that have demanded that the system be faster and faster," Martaus said.

The evolution of Visa's network also points to the card brand's success in marketing, Martaus added.

"They have spent billions of dollars in marketing campaigns to get consumers to use their Visa cards for everything," Martaus said. "Their old ad campaign of Visa being 'everywhere you want it to be' spoke to that concept eloquently."

The growing e-commerce and mobile payment landscapes will only add to the transaction rates in the future, Martaus said.

Visa also tests the system at much higher-than-expected capacities because the network serves as a backup and gateway in case other payment networks encounter failures.

In addition, having far more capacity than one expects sets Visa up to avoid any surprises in the fickle world of consumer spending.

"What if we are wildly successful and have far more transactions?" Trillo asked. "We have to build in some capacity for the fact we can't completely predict consumer behavior."

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