Case Studies

Extreme agility

Dubai-based multi-billion dollar investment firm Legatum, which manages proprietary capital, has a unique management philosophy. The firm, which is focused on long-term investments, also applies its investor’s approach to philanthropic initiatives all around the world in addition to programmes to foster entrepreneurship, such as the Legatum Center at MIT.

However, Legatum’s core business is investment, where time is literally money, and requires split-second decision-making. In other words, this kind of business agility warrants a highly robust and secure IT infrastructure, which is exactly what the firm has built ever since it became operational four years ago.

Being in the financial sector, it is important that Legatum’s team has access to real-time market information 24/7. This is one of the primary reasons why the firm chose to build an in-house data centre in its HQ at Dubai.

“To meet the business demands, we have to provide a resilient IT environment for our colleagues to execute trades and carry out investment research, around the clock. When we started out, we had just two racks of equipment. And as the business grew, we realised that IT is going to play a crucial role,” says Benvir Padda, Legatum’s Head of IT.

The philosophy of Legatum’s IT organisation is to keep IT simple and reliable, reducing the margin for error and making system management much easier. “Such an approach does not limit our adoption of the latest technology – we would say we’re leading edge, but not bleeding edge – and our interest extends into directly investing in the technology sector” says Padda.

The biggest challenge for Padda and his team of five was to expand a live data centre to meet the explosive business growth, without disrupting the business. “Our task was to build a fully high-availability system and carry out maintenance without affecting the business. So we had to build a room around the existing room and literally lift racks with live systems off the floor, and then lay new flooring” says Padda.

Legatum partnered with Dimension Data and APC for the data centre upgrade, which resulted in a complete solution including environmental monitoring, fire suppression system, and power and cooling. “We even pushed APC to come up with a solution, where we have a battery backup time of six hours, which is unheard of in this region. It gives you ample time to shut things down and manage transition in case of a power outage,” says Padda.

Legatum followed the traditional TIA model for its data centre design, which houses ten racks currently. “We couldn’t adopt those standards completely because of the limitations related to power supply and multiple telco availability to the building. So I would say we have a tier-3 data centre with some tier-4 elements. We also have a second data centre in London that acts as a DR site for us,” says Padda.

Once the data centre project was complete, which took around four months, Padda turned his attention to the network design. “We engaged with Cisco & CNS this year to completely redesign our network. W e have dual-homed all switches and servers within the network and upgraded all the links. We have two gig between servers and core switches, and a 10 gig backplane,” says Padda.

Being a financial services company, security is paramount for Legatum. “We wanted a multi-level security architecture and stated with our end-points and then took to our e-mail servers and spam filtering before placing network border monitoring and protections through the use of Blue Coat and the Cisco IPS systems” Legatum currently uses a comprehensive end-point protection suite from Symantec, IPS systems from Cisco and spam filtering solution from IronPort.

Globally, Legatum has around 100 users on its network and two main locations – Dubai and London. Connectivity is provided in the form of internet-based VPNs which connect all the locations. “We did investigate MPLS and as our bandwidth requirements are very high, we couldn’t justify the investment required for a MPLS circuit between Dubai and London, which would have worked out to $ 25000 a month, so our Cisco Architect, Thomas Chalmers, designed and configured the Cisco DMVPN solution over internet links” says Padda.

Legatum’s LAN infrastructure has one gigabit connectivity to the desktop and phones. The company has deployed IP telephony and desktop video conferencing. “We do full HD video conferencing between our locations over the Internet using LifeSize equipment, which we found the most effective solution in the market in terms of bandwidth required. We do HD audio and video calling with just 2 Mbits of bandwidth. Having a converged network is very important to Legatum as it allows us to deliver many services to our colleagues without complications” says Padda. Probably, the only thing that is missing from Legatum’s otherwise redundant IT infrastructure is a second Internet link.

Given the nature of its business, data storage is another critical element for Legatum, which is provided in the form of a SAN with several terabytes of capacity. “Basically, we don’t delete any data and have backup retention periods up to one year. We even store certain data types for indefinite periods. We do instant flashback up to our second data centre and do a daily backup on tape just to give us peace of mind,” says Padda.

Though Legatum’s IT team is relatively smaller in number, Padda says he likes to encourage cross pollination of IT skills between his team. He has never entertained the option of outsourcing operations to a managed service provider. “Initially, we did look at the managed services model for spam filtering and anti-virus, but we realised we need to manage everything in house for the sake of security and privacy,” says Padda.

Padda says he was quite fortunate to have the management buy-in for all of his projects as they realise the importance and value of IT for Legatum. “We do try to do more with less, we have taken out the nice-to-haves and kept all the must-haves as key objectives and continued to invest even in a downturn.” Now, that is something worth emulating for the other IT decision makers in the region.

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