Dubai developments

IT innovation at Dubai Municipality is nothing new. The Emirate's drive for technological sophistication, coinciding with a boom in the city of Dubai as a whole, has driven adoption of new systems and improvements to existing ones. Eliot Beer looks at some of the latest deployments.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  June 1, 2006

|~|shaiba200.jpg|~|Shaiba: Dubai is a dynamic city, and we must be able to act when there is a need.|~|One of the key projects at Dubai Municipality (DM) currently is the adoption of Citrix systems as part of a move towards thin-client technology throughout much of the Municipality's infrastructure.
“We started looking at Citrix two or three years back. At that stage it was a very limited project, just dealing with remote access to email,” says Yousuf Shaiba, acting head of IT operations and network services section at DM.

“At that time we had very limited options for doing what we needed to do, with the functionality we required, such as bilingual support. We also needed a system that would be easy for the users; it should be seamless for them; and we shouldn't need to conduct more training for them to be able to use the system. Security was a high concern as well.”

One of the key motivators for a remote-access email solution such as Citrix was the need for DM officers to routinely open attachments of up to 50MB, sometimes hundreds of megabytes, Shaiba explains. Even with a 1Mbit/second link, the time needed for users to open these hefty files - such as work orders, maps, and other high-resolution or detailed documents - was considerable, and the effect on the users' experience was commensurately large.

“There were also concerns about the security of having these files on remote machines, such as laptops, and the risk of them being lost or stolen,” says Shaiba. “Also, will the user have the right viewer for the file? If he doesn't, he or she has wasted the time downloading the attachment. So we came up with a list of requirements. At the time we were using Microsoft Outlook Web Access and it didn't offer the functionality we needed at that point, and there were also security concerns. So we decided to go with Citrix’s system.”

After bringing in Citrix for email - with all of the messages now residing on a central server, and only graphical data being sent to remote terminals - DM staff looked to transfer other intensive applications to the Citrix platform. For example, the Transport Department used an application called Pathfinder to generate rules for the Dubai Transport buses, and, according to Shaiba, it took up to two minutes to access an individual record.Moving this to Citrix increased the speed of access between seven and 10 times.

This project for the Transport Department marked the start of the second phase for DM's Citrix rollout. Another element of phase two consisted of a new Citrix portal, replacing a previous portal system employed by the Municipality for employee access. Shaiba also says the organisation had been looking at changing the way it provisioned remote workstations for some years, and Citrix seemed to offer a workable alternative.

“Dubai is a dynamic city, and we must be able to act when there is a need. For example we now have four staff in Dewa (Dubai Electricity and Water Authority). To configure their workstations before was very time consuming, and we had a lot of problems with software installations and network issues. Now, providing they have a PC with an internet connection, they can visit the DM Citrix portal, where all applications are provisioned and ready for use. If we need to configure, say MS Office 2000, we just have to tick a box. And to have Office 2003 running alongside as well, we tick another box and the user will get access to resources.”

Shaiba explains that after completing phase one of the Citrix implementation and seeing the potential of the system, the IT management team at DM decided to increase the rollout to cover several hundred users, and add functionality for the Oracle ERP suite which the organisation runs. He says that this presented one of the most challenging aspects of implementing Citrix’s system.

“We considered it a requirement to install the Java initiator on every single desktop. By provisioning the application through Citrix, this gave us the ability to reduce the troubleshooting and also secure the connectivity of important business communications,” says Shaiba. “When you work with Java, things are totally different, compared to other applications. You have to be very careful, fine-tuning the memory, fine-tuning the java container or the virtual machine itself, and setting the right capacity for the number of servers required to deliver that ‘fat’ client.”

To run the applications at the back end, the IT operations staff at DM decided to use blade servers, in order to make scaling their systems easier at a later stage. The Municipality is currently using 13 blade servers to run its applications on top of the Citrix infrastructure, and will be adding an additional 14 blades to cope with the expanding volume of usage - currently standing at 275 concurrent sessions, more than 500 DM staff will be using Citrix in the near future. In the first phase, only 25 users were on the system.

“Our main priority for rolling out Citrix is our remote sites. We currently have more than 118 remote WAN sites around Dubai,” Shaiba says. “We are targeting the smaller sites first, where we only have two or three users - we are giving them the option to access through Citrix, and when we see them fully relying on Citrix, we will switch them over entirely.||**|||~|shaiba200a.jpg|~|Shaiba: We are targeting the smaller sites first, where we only have two or three users - we are giving them the option to access through Citrix.|~|“In the last month we've been able to deliver access to some applications which we never thought we'd be able to do through the thin client mode, and to other organisations. We have some applications within DM which other entities in Dubai started thinking would be useful for them to have access to. For example the Dubai Municipality Archiving System recently came into demand within other organisations, because we have a big repository of information. Even though it was designed for a client/server mode, with big bandwidth requirements, we have made it work through thin clients.”

Looking to the future, Shaiba says DM and Citrix have just completed a study which looks at moving around 4,000 users to the thin client architecture. He is reluctant to reveal the details of the study at the moment, but Shaiba is clearly keen on the potential benefits a widespread rollout of Citrix could bring to the Municipality.

In terms of ROI, Shaiba points out that, being a public body, DM measures its returns in fundamentally different ways. However, he says DM has made substantial savings in time - and so expensive man-hours - by moving to Citrix. For example, instead of an engineer travelling to a remote site and spending a significant amount of time configuring a system or troubleshooting, all configuration can be done remotely.

DM has dealt with security concerns by starting a rollout of two-factor authentication, using an electronic token system - another first for the organisation. Shaiba says he has just approved the internal advertising campaign for the token programme - at the moment there are around 70 live trial users in the scheme.

Another major ongoing project at the Municipality is its service oriented architecture (SOA) implementation. The transformation of the services has been awarded to IBM, and it will be managed and quality assured by ExpertON, which is working as a consultant for DM.

“We have a steering committee to look at our service oriented architecture project - SOA for Dubai Municipality,” says Shaiba.

“We have been studying SOA for around one and a half years, and we started the project in January this year. Now we are coming towards the 'go live' date as planned; this should be before the end of this year. There is also a disaster recovery element, also an SLA bound to it. We are working very closely with IBM on this project - in fact top IBM executives come to visit DM every two weeks for the SOA project.”

SOA forms part of the drive to improve the organisation's service offerings, especially given the ambitious target - set by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai - of having 90% of services online by the third quarter of 2006 - a full quarter earlier than the original target date.

DM has just announced the development of e-forms in a drive to meet this target. The new forms will allow 137 services to be e-enabled, which will push the Municipality almost to the 90% target, with 417 out of 470 services converted. DM is currently testing the e-forms, and it will bring the services online in four phases.

The next stage of the organisation's IT development is likely to be a move towards outsourcing its functions, according to an announcement last month. DM has formed a new outsourcing committee to examine the issue. Initial outsourcing contracts with UAE companies are expected to be issued later this month.

“Corporates and government departments around the world have recognised the advantages of outsourcing processes, and DM's decision to adopt this outsourcing strategy will bring about considerable benefits to the entire Municipality,” says Abdulla Al Shaibani, assistant director general for technical services and head of the DM outsourcing committee. “In addition to substantial costs savings and higher quality of service, we will be able to gain access to technical expertise and skills, and in the process ensure wider fulfilment of business requirements.”||**||

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