Qatar First Investment Bank chooses the cloud to host its disaster recovery apps and data, and finds that it could not have chosen better.
Qatar First Investment Bank (QFIB) is a young company.
And like any other young company in the bustling, economically booming country of Qatar, its ambitions reach far and long.
“We were formed in 2009. But the planning for our organisation started much before that. We have all the advantages that come with a new, young company, and we have set our sights on growth and achievement as our development path for the years to come,” says Slim Bouker, COO of QFIB.
The team at QFIB realised even when they were setting up, that information technology would have to be a basic pillar that supports them not just in their immediate activities but in their future growth as well.
“We started planning in 2008. We had the business plan in place and we knew strategically what we wanted to be in five years’ time. We built the IT base on that strategy to get us to where we wanted to be in five years,” says Mahmood Shaker, CIO at QFIB.
“We wanted our infrastructure to be scalable – something that would stretch from three to ten years. We did not want to be repeatedly spending money on this and so we built our data centre with those requirements. We also chose technology solutions that would last us for five years. Keeping this in mind, we partnered with Microsoft for a range of olutions. We also chose Temenos as our core banking solution as we found it to have all the functionality that we needed. The beauty of this infrastructure is that we built all of this almost by ourselves,” says Shaker with pride.
QFIB operates on a core infrastructure model that utilises Active Directory with Exchange and SQL for databases . QFIB also hosts its core banking service and utilises system management for server consolidation and virtualisation.
A working DR
Being a young organisation looking to capitalise on any technology that can enable them to grow faster and become more efficient, the 10-member IT team found themselves getting increasingly interested in cloud technologies.
“In 2008, when we started on our main production environment, cloud was not a very mature set of technologies. But in 2010, when we began to seriously consider having a disaster recovery (DR) site for our operations, we began to look at cloud technologies because by then they were more wellestablished,” says Shaker.
QFIB then began to investigate the technology options within cloud, called in concept presentations from vendors and took their time in conducting the research that would need to precede such an important decision.
“We attended different seminars and conferences related to cloud technologies to understand the concepts and what the best approach was for us. We spoke to many providers and we reviewed a few scenarios based on our needs without losing sight of the ROI. We also worked with some vendors for proof of concepts (POC) on the cloud. We finally selected Microsoft, EMC and Symantec technologies to implement our cloud infrastructure and the outcome has exceeded our expectations,” says Shaker.
QFIB’s entire DR project stands out for not just its uniqueness, but its absolute boldness as well. For, unlike most other organisations that work with private cloud, QFIB moved mission critical apps to the cloud that hosts its DR.
“We have put together some real high end servers from Dell. We did not have to move away from Microsoft for the loud – we used HyperV straight out of the box. We use Microsoft to support us on the apps front, and we have EMC to help us with storage in the cloud. We started with some pilot services with the cloud. This included the e-mail environment and as soon as we concluded that the DR environment was working fine, was well managed and remains secure, we decided to move other apps to the environment,” explains Shaker.
According to him, these other apps included many mission critical apps used in the production environment. “We have put all the main apps on the cloud. Imagine core banking in the cloud – ERP system which includes HR, billing, financial, assets, and procurement. We just finished the implementation of the SharePoint 2010 for Microsoft. We put that also on the cloud,” says Shaker.
Though the organisation started off using an existing vendor’s replication services, it realised that it needed something with higher capabilities. Shaker then went looking for the right set of services, and even visited client sites for vendors across the region to ascertain the best solution for QFIB’s DR cloud. He finally decided on Symantec for the replication element in the cloud. The entire cloud is externally hosted at a service provider’s environment within Qatar, therefore separating it physically from the production environment.
“We have got it working so smoothly for us now, and the cloud apps, and its replication works so well, that our users can move from the production to the DR environment without knowing the difference,” says Shaker.
Stretching the cloud
The DR cloud has worked so well for QFIB, that the organisation has currently stretched the cloud to cover parts of its production environment as well.
“We have achieved three things with this project – we have got the cloud; we have freed nearly 8 servers in the production environment; and we have also had the opportunity to upgrade to the most recent OS on our infrastructure,” says Shaker.
The firm took four months to plan and select the vendors and four more for the implementation to take place. But this immense success did not come easy – as Shaker explains.
“We had to confront challenges along the way. First, we had to be really sure what kind of cloud we wanted – private or hybrid. I would suggest that all organisations considering the cloud should have this clarity in their minds before stepping into the area of cloud. The second major challenge we encounted was intergration. Every big vendor pitches their own formula for cloud, but at the end of the day, many of their solutions do not work with each other or are not compatible with another vendor’s cloud concept. Sometimes, even solutions within the same vendor do not work with each other well in a cloud environment. Integration among apps is a very real challenge in a cloud environment and end-users have to be aware of this before investing in the same,”
Lack of proper integration also threatened the security elements of the cloud solution at QFIB. Shaker and his team had to work long and hard to get the anti-virus and basic security elements of the cloud sorted out.
“We had a lot of legacy apps and it took some time for us to get what we wanted from the cloud. To get what we wanted, we did quality assurance on every single aspect – we tested the output at every point and made sure that it was what we wanted. From the RFP, we did research on the technology, got feedback, checked references and the support available. In short, we did our homework and then started the project. That is the advice I would give other organisations in the region who are interested in cloud technologies to go about their project,” says Shaker.
He states that now that the challenges have been overcome and they have moved to the cloud, every new project will also find space in it.
Apart from the major cloud project, QFIB’s IT team also worked on several crucial projects in 2010 including a core banking upgrade to include corporate banking and Sukuk as well as implementation of standards such as COBIT, ITIL and ISO 27001 and get the ball rolling to achieve certification.
QFIB’s success in its IT projects is a combination of the vision of its founders, the strategic team work applied to the vision and the rigour of trial and effort. It is also a factor of the enormous management support provided to the team. “The management is very supportive of IT efforts. We discuss IT needs and projects regularly. We have a dedicated budget and an IT steering committee that meet regularly. We employ a specialist to look after information security across the organisation in order to maintain certain operating standards,” says the firm’s COO, Bouker.
Since IT is recognised as a business enabler at QFIB there is an IT strategy, IT steering committee and board approval process for budgets. Technology investments are based on business needs and organisational requirements.
For 2012, the firm has already plans forits CRM (customer relationship management) and to go further with the cloud as a solution for the entire infrastructure. And for QFIB, that is far from being the end of the road.