Try before you buy

The days of two day trips just to see a solution in action are coming to an end for local users as an increasing number of vendors are establishing competency centres throughout the Middle East. Built to let potential customers ‘try before they buy’ such centres also allow users to shorten implementation times, tweak applications and optimise their performance.

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By  Matthew Southwell Published  November 23, 2003

Introduction|~||~||~|International Foodstuffs Company (IFFCO) used to upgrade its Baan enterprise resource planning (ERP) application in one of two ways. If it had spare hardware, the new software would be run in parallel to the existing version and any bugs ironed out. If it did not, then the upgraded application was released directly into the production environment. Although the company carried out risk mitigation exercises and choose the most opportune time to carry out the upgrade, the situation was far from ideal.

“Cost was the driving factor then. If we didn’t have a spare server, then we had to turn a high end desktop into a server and if there was no spare hardware we had to go straight into the production environment,” says IFFCO’s general manager of IT, Venkatesh Mahadevan.

Then, in July last year, Sun Microsystems and Tech Access opened an Authorised iForce Ready Centre. Designed to give independent software vendors (ISVs), Middle East partners and end user organisations a facility in which to test, tweak and see solutions in action, the US$1 million centre provides IFFCO and other local users with a complete Sun-based infrastructure on which to run solution emulations.

Mahadevan and the IFFCO team began using the centre almost immediately; firstly to run the upgrade tests they were unable to carry out inhouse. “What we were really looking for was a platform or centre where we could do proof-of-concept testing for our applications before we put them into a production environment. iForce gives us this environment and allows us to cut down our time to implement,” says Mahadevan.
“If we were to do this ourselves it would mean doubling our investment in hardware, putting a fresh set of technology experts in place to do the testing and go through the entire cycle. Using iForce has shortened the whole cycle,” he adds.

Mahadevan is also using the centre to fine-tune IFFCO’s applications, test new modules, train the company’s IT team and develop proof-of-concept studies for technologies the company may benefit from adopting. “The centre increases time to market,” says Mahadevan.

IFFCO is not the only company to benefit from using the iForce centre and the likes of Habib Bank AG Zurich, Yemeni Air, MTC, Saudi Aramco and even a delegation from the United Nations (UN) has used its facilities.
“We have everyone using the centre, from the biggest oil companies and manufacturing companies to smaller firms that are just evaluating a US$5000 security solution,” says Martyn Molnar, Tech Access’ business solutions architect.

While the Tech Access iForce Ready Centre may be one of the oldest competency centres in the local market, it is certainly not the only one. For instance, Intel opened its Energy Competency Centre with the Abu Dhabi-based Centre of Excellence for Applied Research and Training (CERT) last September. It provides local oil & gas companies and ISVs with the facilities required to port applications to the Intel platform and fine-tune them once they are there. ||**||Intel invests in Finance Competency Centre|~||~||~|
“Since we opened the centre we have been doing a lot of work with the oil companies and ISVs like Halliburton and Schlumberger. They are making full use of the centre for a couple of reasons, one to port their applications to Intel-based clusters and the second is to do the proof of concept to the customers. Others are using it to train their engineers on the Intel platform,” says Ramzi Abdulbaki, business development manager at Intel Middle East & North Africa.

At the end of October 2003, Intel built on the success of its oil & gas facility by setting up a dedicated Finance Competency Centre (FCC) at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Established with HP and Microsoft, the centre provides similar facilities to its oil & gas counterpart. “What we are trying to do with the Finance Competency Centre is provide an environment for banks from across the region to come and look at the various applications that have been developed in key areas such as electronic payments and other areas,” explains Ned Jaroudi, regional enterprise business manager, Intel Middle East & Africa.

“We are getting the local ISVs to port and optimise their applications for the Intel architecture and the FCC is also targeted at corporate developers because a lot of the local financial institutions have inhouse development teams,” he adds.
Intel, along with Dell, has also played a key role in the creation of Hyperlink’s software design laboratory, which is dedicated to developing solutions for the region’s small-to-medium-sized businesses (SMBs). So far, the lab has produced a cut down version of Oracle’s E-Business Suite called BusinessLink that can be implemented in just one month.

“The lab has been created so we have somewhere to think about what the market needs and what it is lacking and then develop solutions to address those needs,” says Hani Harik, president of Hyperlink’s parent company, Emirates Computers. “We have a team there that is doing nothing but this type of development and looking at ways of doing business that are more convenient for the local market. The team has already created BusinessLink,” he explains.

Concurrent to Intel’s competency centre activity, IBM has also been busy building a facility that will allow customers to see a number of its servers and storage offerings in action. Scheduled to go live at the end of Ramadan following a soft opening during November, the centre will also be used by partners such as Seven Seas and Gulf Business Machines (GBM) to demonstrate solutions such as non-disruptive backup, remote point-to-point mirroring and storage virtualisation.

“The centre is primarily here to make it easier for partners to be able to show customers what we can do with their data,” says Jeff Maslen, storage channel development manager, IBM Middle East & Pakistan. “It is an enabler for partners that allows them to prove to their customers that they are capable of doing things and have the knowledge here in the Middle East,” he explains.

In addition to helping end users understand just what its various solutions have to offer in a live environment, the storage centre should help Big Blue boost sales. In fact, Maslen suggests there is a direct relationship between customers going into a lab to see technology in action and actually signing a sales order.

“This [competency centre] will enhance our sales by 30%. Within a year of opening, I expect to see a 30% improvement on the sales closure rate because we have effectively brought the sales cycle forward and improved our control of it,” he adds.
The ability to demonstrate solutions in a real environment rather than presenting them via PowerPoint is undoubtedly a boon for vendors operating in the Middle East. It is particularly important for those touting new or different technologies, or for companies targeting areas outside of their core business.

For instance, by showing both the region’s finance houses and oil & gas giants that their applications can run on the Intel platform, the processor giant is far more likely to persuade them to move away from their RISC-based systems. ||**||Strengthening regional support|~||~||~|
Beyond the specific advantages competency centres offer for their individual owners, the establishment of such facilities heralds the arrival of good things across the board. Foremost among these is the seriousness with which vendors are taking the Middle East. After all, if the local market were neither generating a profit now nor likely to in the future, then the behemoths of the IT industry would be unwise to invest in such centres. “The message conveyed by these centres is simply that Intel is interested in investing in emerging markets and in bringing the latest solutions for specific verticals to the region,” says Jaroudi.

“It also shows that we have the competency in the Middle East and that there are well-trained partners… It takes the fear factor away,” adds Malsen.
The centres also enhance the standing of the Middle East. This not only attracts attention to the local market, which in turn should encourage further investment, but it also gives local companies an opportunity to showcase their wares to a global audience. For example, the Intel Energy Competency Centre has already drawn in business from elsewhere by carrying out projects for companies from Malaysia. It has also highlighted the applications of a number of local ISVs.

“The ISV community in the Middle East is one of the region’s best kept secrets. People in Europe and the US do not think there is a thriving ISV community here and centres such as Intel’s are vehicles that ensure this message changes,” says Jaroudi.
For local end user organisations, the creation of competency centres not only allows them to witness solutions in action, therefore extending their own knowledge and allowing them to make more informed purchasing decisions, but they also give users the ability to tweak applications to meet their specific needs.

“This is important in the Middle East because people need to get an understanding that they are not just buying a vanilla solution but they are buying something that can be customised to meet their needs,” says Molnar.
In addition to improving customisation, competency centres allow users to get better value from their technology purchases. Applications developed in the US are, unavoidably, tied to return on investment (ROI) models that best fit the North American market and those developed areas within Europe. As a result they do not always fit the Middle East and users that think they do can soon find themselves a long way from achieving a positive ROI.

“Local competency centres ensure users get a solution that works under Middle East conditions,” says Molnar. “This means the customer can not just see a solution working but also where the value comes from for them. It is not just about demonstrating the solution and getting them to buy it, but understanding that customers are not going to spend unless they have planned for a return. Anything that we do in the iForce centre has the ROI numbers attached to it,” he explains.

While less important than long term ROI, competency centres also deliver value in the short term as they help human resources departments slash travel budgets. If local companies no longer have to travel to the US, which is where the majority of competency centres used to be housed, then productivity also increases as IT teams are no longer out the office for days on end.

“The business benefits are that we have the solutions running in the users backyard today so they don’t have to wait for them and they don’t have to invest a lot of money in going to see them in action,” says Jaroudi.
“It means they don’t have to travel all the way to the US to see a solution because they are an hour, at most, from a centre that offers all of the facilities of the global players but has the regional aspects built into it,” adds Molnar.

In short, competency centres seem to offer nothing but positives. As IFFCO’s Mahadevan says, “they show a vendors’ commitment to this part of the world and they cut down implementation times. They also allow the end user to think beyond just simple support and they strengthen the hand of a technology department by allowing IT to keep pace with the business.”
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