A whole new world

Daniel Stanton talks to the CIO at Dubai World, which is undergoing one of the biggest, most ambitious IT transformation projects in the Middle East - if not the world.

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By  Administrator Published  November 30, 2006

Dubai World is overhauling its IT systems in what is probably the largest technology transformation ever seen in the Middle East, as it plans for further expansion of its global empire. What is even more impressive is the pace at which this change has occurred.

"You can compare it to replacing a car from the '70s with a car from the 21st century - a Ferrari or Porsche - while driving, and changing every single component including the driver," says Francis Veldeman, CIO, Information Technology Centre, Dubai World.

"It includes multi-million dollar investment which covers, in one year, hardware, middleware, network infrastructure, software applications, recruitment of resources - we're going from 80 people to 300 people in one year."

The spur for the transformation was the announcement 15 months ago by His Excellency Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, chairman of Dubai World, of the group's expansion plans. So far, these have included the acquisition of P&O, the expansion of Nakheel, and the UAE's tax reform programme, which will involve setting up an entire tax infrastructure.

The Jebel Ali free zones are also extending their reach, while Istithmar is expanding as a venture capital fund.

"There wasn't a single day when expansion plans weren't announced," says Veldeman. "So in order to cope with that growth we had to make sure that the information which is considered to be the basis of the company was going to become faster. "We focused on two aspects, people and assets.

“We were 120 people, which we then scaled down to the people who were really going to be able to cope with the growth and who had important growth potential from a technology development point of view. And we recruited extensively, focusing on people with an Arabic profile and a UAE profile.

"We were very fortunate so today we are now 200 people plus another 150 contractors fulltime. That is on the people side and this story isn't finished. Next year the plans are to go to 450."

The technology behind the group has also been rethought. "On the asset side we stepped away from best of breed to strategic vendor partnerships, so we have identified strategic vendors which we can work with for the way forward without being technical and more strategic," says Veldeman.

"You can imagine that every time you have to make a decision you go to 20 different vendors and you will always have a vendor that is cheaper, better and faster, but in the long run what you need to make sure is that your maintenance, your support, your knowledge - in-house as well as on the customer service side - is being maintained.

“Otherwise if you have 36 different vendors you have 36 different maintenance support migrations interfaces. This is very painful, so you want to keep it simple and stupid and scaleable." Reducing the number of IT vendors also had advantages when it came to integration between systems. "In terms of database we went with Oracle, moving away from six or eight different database vendors, which makes the foundation not only transparent but you can transfer the information in a very consistent way," he says.

"The other strategic vendor that we had is Cisco. We have 52 gateways, we have a local area network, we have a metropolitan area network and we have a worldwide area network. We are the third biggest owner of ports in the world with over 50 ports spread all over the world, with expansion plans, so we need to make sure that our intranet is robust and secure."

From a hardware perspective, Dubai World chose HP as its strategic partner and has implemented four Superdome servers. "We have a single data centre with multiple instances for all of those 70 businesses, in order to comply with corporate governance, because a lot of those businesses are going to go to an IPO and be privatised," says Veldeman.

Dubai World is still looking for a partner for desktop automation, but has moved its workspace area to Microsoft, and will use Oracle for its management applications.

"I think we are the first company in the Middle East for Oracle to have implemented single sign-on," says Veldeman. "We have 75 businesses and you have one accounting department in shared services. In the past you had always to go from company one to two to three by closing the books and then reopening. Single sign on allows you, without going in and out, to have the accounting department - it could also be the sales department or the HR department - processing and enabling the flow of the invoices to go through the proper legal entities."

The project has included many regional firsts, according to Veldeman. "We did the single biggest implementation of financial applications, HRMS and CRM in the GCC area," he says. "This had to be done within one year. It's a massive transformation.

"Before, there was no CRM, as simple as that. People were just calling in and people were picking up phones, and if you were lucky you were properly serviced - but of course this is not scaleable. “ If you have the Palm Jumeirah, which has 250,000 people which you need to provide services for, you'd better have an infrastructure which is scaleable."

User satisfaction surveys have revealed people are much happier working with the new applications. Before the transformation project began, satisfaction levels were around 70%; in a matter of months they have risen to the high 90s.

The success of the project in such a rapid space of time has taken even its CIO by surprise. "In my 35 years I have not seen such a transformation," says Veldeman. "In less than 15 months we did that with people that were all new."

He believes that the Information Technology Centre is now one of the top five IT organisations in the GCC. However, with such rapid expansion, Dubai World cannot afford to stand still when it comes to its IT environment.

"Now for us it's being able to scale up and go international, to develop disaster recovery plans outside the UAE, to be able to service the ports in a star configuration with several data centres that are backing each other up," says Veldeman. "The topology is there and we need to consolidate more."

“In my 35 years I have not seen such a transformation. In less than 15 months we did that with people that were all new.”

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