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Microsoft to build duo of UAE data centres

0 81Microsoft has announced plans to build its first Middle East and North Africa data centres in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
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A line of vision

IF THERE IS ONE THING THAT DR AISHA Butti Bin Bishr, former director of corporate excellence at The Executive Council (TEC), Dubai likes more than the prospect of a challenge, it is the success that lies at the end of overcoming it.

Driven as she is by a higher vision, this singular woman fitted perfectly into the fold of TEC. Chaired by HH Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and led by its Secretary General HE Abdulla Al Shaibani, TEC works to support the implementation of Dubai’s Strategic Plan (DSP) for 2015.

“We are responsible for implementing DSP and making sure that the government and any initiatives undertaken by the government are aligned to this vision and strategic plan.  Other areas that we cover in the government include devising laws and regulations, making sure that they are aligned with the overall strategy and ensuring communication among government bodies.  With larger goals in mind, we believe and advocate partnership between us and other strategic partners, whether in government or the private sector,” said Bin Bishr.

The people associated with TEC – all 130 of them – work to achieve perfection in their tasks, with the ultimate aim of attaining the overall goals of the organisation. Bin Bishr championed her 13 member IT team to work towards realising excellence not only in technology and its usage, but also in the way they integrate with the various departments of TEC.

“TEC was launched in 2003, but till 2007 it shared the infrastructure and backbone of a sister entity in the government. That year I came in to segregate the infrastructure as necessary,” recalls Bin Bishr.

Even at that early stage, Bin Bishr realised that going with the highest in standards and ensuring infrastructure was efficient, would fool-proof TEC for the future and thus ensure business efficiency well into the next decade.

“When we built our data centre we decided that it should be well covered from all possible angles.  We believed that if the services we offered were that important to us, then we should be fully redundant and fully secure. On a more basic level, we had to build the data centre, segregate it, shift it from premises to premises, and ensure that the data was transferred effectively. It was a huge challenge, but we did all of it with zero downtime. We are very proud of that achievement,” says Bin Bishr.

After much discussion and consideration of other options, TEC’s data centre was built in the lower basement of the headquarters building. The data centre, which today is qualified as somewhere between tier 3 and tier 4, is housed in a separate room that is completely watertight.

“We work as incubators for government initiatives. We need to make sure that all launched initiatives have proper systems in place and, when they become full entities, can take these systems with them easily. So we built our data centre as a plug-and-play facility we have racks, the cables are set, you just bring your server and you just plug it in. We call our cabling design the lasagne style. That’s quite unlike a mesh, macaroni or spaghetti style. It is a very neat design, where every cable is layered, tied and identified properly,” said Bin Bishr.

TEC started building the data centre in April 2008, and went live with it in September the same year. It was during this stage that Bin Bishr and her team were made aware of the security gaps that they would need to fill in order to move forward as a champion of e-government.

“TEC wanted to ensure that it set a high standard in information security and ISO 27001, an international standard in information security, proved to be a measurable and accepted benchmark worldwide. In order to ensure that information security requirements and controls were being addressed in a manner consistent with the risk posture of TEC, it was important that a management system be implemented, which would ensure the widest possible coverage of all domains,” explained Bin Bishr.

Having decided to get itself ISO certified, TEC began to look for a vendor that would make an appropriate partner.

“Several vendors responded to our request. Out of this we shortlisted three.  Our expectation from our chosen partner vendor was that they would be able to send someone who would be with us in house. We wanted someone to sit with us and understand our needs.  We believed that a consultant who merely visited us would not be able to understand the unique nature of our environment. We wanted the consultant to tailor the standard out there to make  it more  relevant to our  area. Among those vendors, Paramount was willing to do this,” said Bin Bishr.

Additionally, Paramount’s PDCA (Plan- Do-Check-Act) framework impressed the team at TEC. The PDCA life cycle, which involves the designing and building of the information security management system (ISMS) is a structural approach that helps the organisation to understand the ISMS thoroughly. This makes management by internal resources much easier even as the organisation conforms to ISO 27001:2005 standards.

“The other vendors did not have anything similar. Paramount was much more mature in this regard. And this was crucial for us, since we were starting from scratch and did not have any previous experience in handling or implementing any such standards. Considering all of this, we decided on Paramount for the project,” explained Bin Bishr.

Paramount kept its promise. Not only did it provide an in-house team, but it also stood by TEC guiding it through the maze of processes and procedures that paved the way to an ISO certification, so much so that Paramount’s employees are now considered members of TEC’s own team. To this day, ISMS is outsourced to Paramount, though it is managed from TEC’s premises.

“We want to build up internal resources to take over this task. Currently we have the contract for this until April this year (2010), but we might extend it, since we want our employees to be truly up to the level of service that is required before we let the current outsourcing deal go,” said Bin Bishr.

The project, which was started in November 2008, ended in March 2009 achieving for TEC an ISO 27001 certification in record time.

Good old days
The year 2008 was an important one in IT terms for TEC. The organisation set up its infrastructure, built its own data centre and achieved an ISO certification – all within the same year. TEC also started looking seriously into many green IT initiatives in order to strengthen its IT framework as well as ensure cost effectiveness for business operations.

“One of our early success stories involved our green printing initiative. Originally, we had many printers around TEC – one for every team, one for every director. With such a setup, costs became a concern, but more importantly, employees were leaving confidential documents in the printer after printing them. This left a window for data leakage that we wanted to close immediately,” said Bin Bishr.

After considering the devices and solutions available in the market, Bin Bishr and her team decided to go with a centralised solution that would help ensure security, even as it proved to be ‘green’.

“We implemented multi-function devices (MFDs) at each floor. Now, when someone gives a print command, they have to walk to the printer and swipe their personal ID card, which is also used for access across the building. When their card is swiped, the documents are printed. And since its all centralised and all of us are mobile with our own  laptops, this means I can  give a print command from our office in Dubai Healthcare City and  collect it from an MFD in Emirates Towers,” said Bin Bishr.

According to Bin Bishr, with every printout these MFDs also display the number of pages that were taken out, the cost to the organisation as well as to the environment.  Every month a report is sent out to the employees pointing out the employee and the department that took the most printouts and the ones that took the least.

“Initially, there was a lot of resistance to the solution. We received thousands of grievances, and these included everything from genuine technical difficulties to complaints about the difficulty of walking to the MFD. However, after two weeks, they got used to the system and began to see its benefits. Now, when they go out and see how other organisations function, they realise even more how much better off we are. Now, everybody consciously tries to reduce their printing requirements so that their name does not appear on the top printers list,” says Muna Abdulla Al Falasi, head of the IT unit at TEC.

Fuelled by such successful projects, the team is now working on making its data centre into a greener environment as well.

“We have implemented virtualisation across our blade servers, which are part of our green initiatives. We started with certain apps on the servers and then jumped into the network, and now we are into storage. We have planned it in phases and now we are well into the third phase. Ultimately, the idea is to virtualise as much of the data centre as is possible,” said Bin Bishr.

TEC is also working towards getting its data centre officially ‘green’ certified by LEED. “There are several points involved in getting the certification. We are in the process of getting these points in place for the certification,” said Bin Bishr.

Strengthen the base
In many ways TEC’s IT initiatives are ground-breaking projects in the Middle East and involves it spearheading the way across government initiatives. None of it would be possible without the continuing support of the management. “We are lucky to have many of our senior management representatives with an IT background. The earlier management was very supportive and the current management is moving forward with the vision and has offered us unconditional support. They have made this one of the best IT environments for practicing and implementing new initiatives. Our management is very open-minded and with them we can pilot new solutions and, if they are successful, we can export them to other government bodies,” said Bin Bishr.

Provided with such unstinting support, the IT team is all set to take on several more projects.

“Next on the agenda are a business continuity plan and a disaster recovery operation for our organisation. For this, we recently sent a team comprising of IT and other department members to attain BCI certification. They have achieved the first level of certification and have already started a series of internal meetings in order to understand TEC’s environment and  come  up with scenarios appropriate to the same,”  said Bin Bishr.

TEC is also planning on launching a new meeting system for its executives. It is based on the .Net platform and builds on the establishment’s existing Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS). It also plans to continue adding to solutions that it uses internally, like the  HRMS and  the intranet. According to Bin Bishr, TEC will most probably continue to outsource the IT services that it has already outsourced including network management, security management and the Microsoft platform.

“In 2008, since we were building the infrastructure and put all the solutions in place we had a healthy budget – around 7% of the overall budget. In 2009, this was reduced to 5% and I believe it will remain at the same level for this year, since it is largely licensing and maintenance that we need it for,” states Bin Bishr.

The IT team has worked hard and long to make its projects successful and there is no doubt that it will continue to win in its future endeavours. Bin Bishr herself has moved onto a new position at the Ministry of Labour, and there is no doubt that with her initiative and skills she will be leading the way to path-breaking pilots and reaching new heights very soon.

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