Case Studies

Riding the cloud

Saeed Al Dashti, CIO, Jumeirah Group

The Jumeirah Group has built a private cloud in a hybrid environment to connect disparate offices and improve efficiency.

Home grown hospitality giant the Jumeirah Group has always been on the forefront of technology adoption in the region. The group prides itself on adopting state-of-the-art innovations, integrating it into its functions and seeing benefits from it much before anyone else in the region is even considering the same.

“We are lucky to operate in a region that is at the edge of technology in our industry. Where we are different is that our home base is Dubai while many of the other hotel groups have their head offices in Asia, Europe or the United States. For us technology is a major priority, and plays an important role in delivering on our stated brand promise and personalised service. We leverage existing technology and we do a lot of innovation in room technology and guest service offerings,” says Saeed Al Dashti, the new CIO at Jumeirah. Dashti considers himself lucky to be leading the IT initiatives at the hospitality group, since technology is closely linked to business initiatives in the organisation.

“Jumeirah Group views IT as a key business driver and enabler of its projected global growth. The CIO has a seat on the company’s management committee and at the moment more than half of the projects on the company’s balance score card are IT initiatives. Since the introduction of new technology or IT projects require a structured change management approach, my key role has been to be an active change agent in the enterprise,” says Dashti.

Every year the group invests its significant IT budgets in either new projects or upgrading old ones, and 2010 was no different. “We invest equally in our global infrastructure and the enterprise applications it supports as both are critical to our operations and future growth. In 2010 we put a brand new central data centre to support the projected expansion and we worked on a number of CRM and ERP related application projects. Besides, IT plays such an important role in the overall business strategy and it is the glue that sticks things together, so in order to bring true convergence of technology and service we have invested in key centralised services such as reservations, online booking, yield management and call centre technologies. And now we have property specific initiatives that will deliver local knowledge and enable concierge and guest service functions,” says Dashti.

The organisation also completed a private cloud project to provide services across multiple branches.

“The main reason for our private cloud is the ability it provides to deploy our systems rapidly and around the world. We try to minimise the footprint of systems on property in order to make it as cost effective as possible to run a hotel. We want our colleagues in properties to focus on the excellent guest service that we are known for, not on our managing systems. Besides, our industry has a lot of computing workload requirements at specific times. For example, a month-end process requires a workload, which is heavier than other times. So to cater for such spikes in demand, our own private cloud allows us to provision the necessary computing power and tear it down once the job is done. This is what many service providers call elastic computing. In terms of technology used we tend to use best of breed technologies but primarily operate a Microsoft stack in our data centres.”

Dashti continues, “One of the key drivers for the cloud was the need to consolidate servers, storage and data centre infrastructure and bring about cost savings and efficiencies in power and cooling. Another objective was also to be able to have a computing resource available on demand. The format we used ahead of consolidation and deploying virtualised environments was deploying individual physical servers, distributed storage layer etc. We had a higher footprint in the number ofservers, storage, data centres etc.”

The decision to build private cloud was taken last year when the group was investing in a new central data centre. The IT team looked at the investment involved in building a data centre and found it wasn’t cost effective. Considering the options, Jumeirah decided to partner with a co-location service provider to host its infrastructure.

“We had a perfect opportunity to leverage latest technologies in data centre design and computing density. Most of the implementation was done internally by IT team members while some components were procured from vendors along with implementation services. We follow a mature project management process for all IT projects and that was the process followed on this and all other IT programs,” says Dashti.

Despite the best practices that Jumeirah follows for all projects, and did for the private cloud as well, it faced certain crucial challenges. “Some of the challenges and issues that came up were related to change management. The processes that are followed to manage and operate traditional data centres is quite different when most technologies are virtualised. Upgrading the skill set and changing the operational processes we faced were some of the other challenges in the initial stages. However, as part of the process we had enough time within the project to incorporate all these changes before it turned into issues,” says Dashti.

He continues, “From an applications stand point we had to identify applications that could be hosted and supported on our private cloud. We also share in place a management layer, which is an important piece of the private cloud to properly manage, maintain and support the environment.”

Networking masters

The cloud provides a hybrid environment for the Jumeirah Group. Some public cloud services are obtained from providers in the form of Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) and Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), while some line of business apps are offered in the form of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). The private cloud covers most of the apps and services for internal users and customers, and Jumeirah will continue to expand the capability of its cloud.

According to the firm, the cloud project and its future is also linked strongly to its global MPLS network, which it has been talking about for a couple of years now.

“We have done extensive work in upgrading our wide area network here in the UAE and migrated all legacy circuits such as ATM, E1s etc to an MPLS ring and some of the sites are lit using our own fibre optic cables. Currently we are working with global service providers to upgrade our international network from an Internet based IPsec VPN to a managed private MPLS network. This is progressing quite well and we intend to complete this before the summer of this year,” says Dashti.

According to him, the planned MPLS network will be the primary transport vehicle that carries business critical applications from the various data centres to the group’s global sites and end users. These two sets of infrastructure complement each other and for the firm this from the foundation that will support future growth.

 

Just the starting point

For the hospitality giant, the network and the cloud is no stopping point. In fact, the firm is working on IT to constantly improve it and make it increasingly relevant to the business that it supports.

“2011 is another exciting year for us. We plan to open eight properties in six different countries, including China and Germany. Each opening is a project on its own. We will continue our infrastructure improvement initiatives and enterprise application projects, and we will add two exciting customer facing technologies this year as well,” says Dashti.

“One exciting project we are working on at the moment is deploying public telepresence rooms in our business hotels. This advanced video conferencing technology will allow our guests to meet even if they are not in the same place. These telepresence rooms will also connect to other managed telepresence room providers around the world making it easy for our guests to find a telepresence room where we currently don’t have a hotel operation,” he continues.

Dashti adds, “Also a strategic Jumeirah IT goal has been to continue the personalised customer service to guests electronically, whether through television channels, mood settings conveyed through lighting or the ability to control the climate in the room. Expanding on this we are working on a new guest technology platform that will allow guests to access the hotel services through a multitude of devices including iPads, iPhones, BlackBerrys and other personal devices. These systems will allow us to deliver seamless services to our guests based on their preferences.”

Being a global company that is home grown comes with its own pros and cons for the hospitality giant. “We have over 100 nationalities working for us in Dubai and that means we have local knowledge about many places around the world. Our biggest expansion is in the Middle East and Asia, and having our systems close helps us to roll it out quicker. Likewise, being a global brand means that the IT team is under more pressure to keep any new technology simple and easy to understand because customers come from different backgrounds and have different language sets so we try to keep things intuitive. As part of our IT strategy we standardise on core IT infrastructure and systems, which helps us deliver consistent services in different parts of the world,” points out Dashti.

He adds, “The downside of being a home grown brand that has global operations is the cost of telecommunications. Currently the cost of connectivity is quite high, especially in comparison to other regions where our competitors are based out of. We are actively engaging and working with local service providers to improve in this area. We participate in the customer advisory board of the local telecom operator.” Jumeirah Group, and its IT team, continues to face their challenges head on, and prove that when a team works seamlessly, and you have management support, there is not much they cannot do to overcome the obstacles that they face in organisational growth.

 

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