Disarming dissent

Fadi Hindi, IT consultant at Dubai eGovernment, drives the different initiatives required to meet the Emirate's eGovernment vision by 2007. Colin Edwards talks to him about how the development of an SOA platform disarmed vendor preferences within different Government departments and facilitated the integration of shared services.

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By  Colin Edwards Published  August 1, 2006

|~|fadi200.jpg|~|Fadi Hindi, IT consultant at Dubai eGovernment,|~|Arabian Computer News When did you join DeG and what specific expertise did you bring to the department?

Fadi Hindi I joined in February 2004 from the United States. I've 16 years experience in the IT industry, of which 14 to 15 years were spent in the architecture and integration space. I've covered a lot of different industries and was a practice director for integration for a management consultant in the US. I was hired by DeG to help with the integration, design and implementation and rollout of eServices across different government departments.

ACN You've got pretty tight deadlines to meet if you're to realise the eGovernment vision of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. How are you ensuring you and the DeG will hit them?

FH It’s a very aggressive target, but, as we move forward, I would say it is becoming more realistic as everyone is marching towards that goal. We have developed an application that is shared between all the government departments. It was developed by this office. They provide information on their eServices and, based on formulae and guidelines and information, we publish the status for the executive office. It is all going good and getting better.

ACN In the middle of all this you embarked on a SOA project. Was this part of the whole initiative or a separate project?

FH The first order of business when I joined DeG was to revamp our infrastructure and architecture to position us for what I call the next level. The platform had done us well for the first two to three years, but there were some limitations and there were some concerns around security and stability.

In our vision we we wanted to transact across all government departments. So we needed something that was a bit more solid - something that would put us on a solid footing. We didn't want to have any doubts in anybody's mind, especially the departments', that the DeG had limitation or concerns.

So we moved to a BEA platform and we basically upgraded our entire production infrastructure. We revamped our architecture and our network infrastructure. We revamped our security. We did all of this in parallel with the existing platform so we had a double duty going on - manage the running platform and build and roll out the new one. I would venture to say that now our infrastructure is probably one of the most mature in the region as far as eGovernment is concerned. It's very strong, very robust.

So it then became a question about how do we take this to the next level? How do we march to the next target? That's when the integration platform - the business integration initiative - started.

ACN What are these shared services that DeG has developed for the departments?

FH Our shared services are spread across two key categories - front end - the customer facing services that directly touch the customer - and back-end - more eGovernment enablement services.

There are many initiatives. One of the key front end ones is a central gateway to all government departments. This is a portal called www.dubai.ae. This basically contains information and promotes eServices of the different government department. It has a sophisticated search engine that crawls all the government web sites and provides search facility to all the portals and websites hosted at DeG.

ACN And the backend enablement services - what do they comprise?

FH For the backend side of synergistic services, one of the key ones is the business integration platform. This is based on a SOA framework and approach. We also have the payment gateway for all the government departments. So if you go to the Dubai Police site to pay a fine, for example, then once you enter all your details, it connects to our central clearing agency. That's us. We're doing the transaction on behalf of the government departments and we have been able to achieve significant cost savings for them. An ePayment gateway is an example of how 'build it once and use it many times' works.

We have become the de facto standard for payment clearing for all the major government departments. We provide them not only with the platform and the actual service, but also with the best practices and knowledge on how to integrate, which of itself is very important.

ACN What other eServices do you provide?

FH Another that has been launched is the trade licence integration service. The idea is that the landscape of the trade licence and its integration with the Department of Economic Development was getting unwieldy. So, in collaboration with the DED's IT, we have used our business integration platform to develop a seamless, streamlined integration approach where DED can use SOA and our technology.

We've done quite a bit of innovation with this. They link to our hub once and then it is basically just provisioning services on our side to the individual government departments. It's SOA all the way. They send information to us through web services; we send information out to the constituents or departments through web services also.

Within the hub we're using all the latest technologies - these include business process management business process automation, and analytical reporting.

ACN What sort of benefits are you deriving from the SOA development?

FH For me, the advantage of SOA is adoption. People are more apt to work with you in an SOA fashion when you're not taking a "you have to use this BEA technology" kind of an approach.

By being able to say "OK we will just agree to web services as specification and agree to the data standard," you're able to disarm any conflict that could arise.

ACN What sort of conflict are you talking about?

FH It can become a vendor war with users saying: No, I want to use Oracle; I'm Microsoft; I use JBOSS; I'm BEA. A disarming approach is extremely productive because we actually get to the crux of it. Otherwise, in these vendor war scenarios, you settle and get down to actual work, then find you can't proceed because of some other problem. As someone running an IT project or business integration office, I want to know that immediately because I want to be able to prioritise what initiatives I am going to go after and what initiatives I am going to have to put on the back burner. If it is going to take me two months just to finish a fight around WebSphere versus WebLogic, or two months of emails, calls and meetings to find out that they have still to finish x amount of work before they can integrate I would rather know that immediately.

What I found with the web services, SOA, approach is that we've got past all that. If you're WebSphere - great that's not a problem; if you're WebLogic, that's not a problem either; if you're .NET - that's not an issue. Let's talk about the data; let's talk about your processes. You immediately come to the table in one or two meetings and you're actually talking about the business problem.

ACN What other in-house developments are you particularly proud of?

FH I am personally extremely proud of the integration platform that we have developed and also the type of analytical reporting that we're currently doing. It is something that I envisioned and believe is an innovation. It is providing executive dashboards of real-time information. Typically with IT, there are things running in production that you don't know about until after the fact. You get a report at the end of the week or the end of the day or whatever. What we have done with these dashboards is create executive views of what's happening in production. You can see in real-time how many transactions we have done today in Payment, for example; how many trade licences we have moved, how many deliveries have been done. Everyone in this office has come to a point now where they are used to it but someone from the outside says: “I can't believe you are doing this.”

ACN Do you develop in-house or outsource ?

FH We are a heavy in-house development organisation. We do outsource, but with restraint - with rules. We have a methodology that we follow for application development. We've identified what portions of a particular project lifecycle we will outsource and the guidelines around that. Vendors have to sign up for that from day one. For example, architecture is done by this office. Other things - verifying that they are following our guidelines - are also done by this office. Doing quality assurance on the product is also a function of this office. The actual coding they can do. We do some outsourcing, but it's not very big. We're half way through the year and virtually all the development has been done in house.

ACN Why such a dependence on in-house development when the trend seems to be to outsource such needs?

FH We found that due to the nature of this office we are conscious about security and that applications must be developed in a certain way complying with our standards. And, quite frankly, the availability of skilled companies with deep skills are not abundant. When we have brought in someone to do some work we've ended up reviewing and rewriting portions of that work. Of course, there are companies that have done a good job for us.

ACN What are you plans for the short term?

FH I think our focus will be mainly on the integration side, at least from my perspective. What I have done over the past 18 months is establish a programme office within the DEG for business integration. It's called the BIPMO.

The whole purpose of the BIPMO is to look at people, process and technology for business integration across all government departments - that's it. That's what the office does. It looks at what needs to be done; but it doesn't get into the actual implementations. It highlights the areas that should be developed.

An example is BIPMO overseeing the electronic permit with Customs. We have a formal project running between Customs and DeG where we are constructing a platform for electronic permits, so that vessels and carriers can have electronic permits instead of paper based permits sent to them.

The BIPMO, in collaboration with Customs, envisioned that project; outlined the scope for that project; did most of the work for the MOU; and converted that into a standalone project within the DeG that is overseen by the BIPMO. This is the value that this office brings to the organisation, the global view of business integration.

ACN Is that BIPMO's sole function?

FH The other thing is to develop data standards. We follow the Open Applications Group Integration Standards (OAGIS). We're also member of the Global Integration Consortium - we're members and contributors, so we're not a closed shop, we're actually very open. We're adopting global standards and contributing to global standards, which is also a source of pride to us.

ACN How important is standards compliance in a government environment?

FH It's very important. In my book, it's the second phase of disarming someone when you talk to them about SOA. If you're vendor neutral that eliminates a lot of the argument and if you use a "not invented here" mentality, people are less apt to argue with you.

I have personal ties with several executives at OAG and speak with them frequently. As an organisation they have skilled people that have been working on standards since 1994. We believe that this gives OAGIS an edge over any other locally invented standard. Since we believe that OAG know what they're doing we have decided to adopt it versus having to invent something. This is the value of standards. We're following OAGIS and extending OAGIS and from an eGovernment standpoint we're pioneering in the region I haven't seen anyone else following that XML standard and we're innovating to the point where OAGIS is asking us to submit some of our schemas for government so that is something that we're also proud of.

ACN How do you develop and implement your IT strategy at DeG?

FH I go through a process for developing a strategic IT plan annually. I start with the department's strategic plan. I look at the plan and synthesize the business drivers of the organisation. Then I list all the projects that are on the docket plus new ones that I would like to do and then I run through a prioritisation between drivers and projects and build a project portfolio and present that to the director and get his approval.

That's my strategic plan and then I march to that quarterly. For 2005 we had about 28 projects and we delivered 25 - one or two were cancelled and one ran over into 2006. This year we have 27 projects.

ACN What would you say are the biggest challenges you face at DeG?

FH Quite frankly it's finding skilled professionals. The biggest challenge remains that I see in Dubai is finding the people with deep skills. There are a lot of people with great skills, but sometimes you look for very particular or specific expertise and you want deep experience in that - these people are very hard to find, but we keep looking.
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