Starter's orders

Qatar’s Aspire project is gearing up for this December’s Asian Games. Soubhi Abdulkarim, the man responsible for making sure Aspire’s network is up to speed, talks to NME.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  September 3, 2006

|~|abdulkarim200.jpg|~|“if you want to use an IP infrastructure, when you put PoE over the IP infrastructure it makes it much easier – when you want to install a camera, an access point, a phone – anything – then you can get the power and the data.” Soubhi Abdulkarim, director of IT at Aspire and Sports City, Qatar.|~|Qatar’s Aspire project has become one of the Middle East’s key prestige projects, at least from an IT perspective. The project, which aims to promote sporting excellence and is a major part of the country’s drive towards December’s Asian Games, can boast of some of the most ambitious IP-based converged network systems in the region. One of the people driving the adoption of innovative networking solutions is Soubhi Abdulkarim, director of IT at Aspire and Sports City. He has been working hard to push the uptake of new technologies, to help improve the facilities of Aspire, as well as the wider Sports City project. “Aspire originally was an academy – we expanded beyond that to include the Sports Hospital, and Sports City as a whole,” says Abdulkarim. What we’re trying to do is to look at Sports City almost as a metropolitan area – its own little city. “I would like to see data provided as a utility, a commodity, like water and electricity; I think this is the future. So we are trying to implement this idea today – eventually our goal is to provide voice, video, data, IPTV, security, CCTV, access control; whatever can run on IP, we would like to put on IP.” Abdulkarim and his team had the luxury of being able to build a network almost from scratch without having to allow for compatibility with legacy systems, at least for the most part. With this in mind, the Aspire IT team wanted a system that could grow with them as the size and scope of the project expanded. Abdulkarim says: “Scalability was one of our key requirements when looking at vendors. Even though in the beginning the project was pretty much centred around Aspire, but we knew there would be a lot more around Sports City, a lot more venues would be built, and the Asian Games had already been announced. So we were looking for something that would scale with us.” After testing systems from a number of vendors, Abdulkarim settled on 3Com as the main provider for the Aspire network infrastructure. He explains that this came from a desire to use a vendor which could supply an end-to-end solution, as well as the technical abilities of the 3Com products. “One of the technologies that 3Com had at that time was XL8 technology, which if you are growing, allows you to have core switches located in different places, and XL8 brings them together as one big virtual core switch – it will scale with you as you keep adding more backbone, making it much bigger and more powerful,” the Aspire IT director says. “When we were doing the evaluations a couple of years ago, the 3Com guys came and they did a small demonstration where we actually hooked up a small mock-up of the network with XL8, voice and everything else,” adds Abdulkarim. “And the guys challenged us to bring the network down by just unplugging cables, and we lost one thing sometimes, other times nothing – but the network stayed up. So we were very impressed with that demonstration, and it was pretty much the decisive point for us – you can read the specification, but when you see it actually happening in front of you, it’s completely different.” Abdulkarim is clearly very happy with the 3Com systems deployed at Aspire, and is also pleased to talk about the close relationship he and his team have forged with the vendor. He says that when figuring out how to drive the technology forward, both his staff and 3Com representatives generated ideas on how to adapt or develop new solutions for particular problems. Issac Shihabi, 3Com’s general manager in the Middle East, says he sees Aspire as one of the most important accounts the company has in the whole region. Shihabi is also quick to acknowledge the challenges Aspire has presented the vendor from a technical perspective. “I think one of our biggest challenges was to keep up with the development and the speed with which Aspire is growing and deploying technologies, and take advantage of whatever is out there in terms of tools to be able to run their business in a more effective manner,” he says. “And we are doing our best to always understand and be on top of what is going on in terms of plans and strategies. The entire team over there has been extremely helpful in sharing this information with us, which again helps us to plan how we can better serve Aspire.” One of the interesting aspects of the project was the reliance on what are still evolving technologies, and were certainly cutting-edge when Abdulkarim decided to deploy them. The Aspire network infrastructure has both Gigabit to the desktop and power over Ethernet; the first is to accommodate the demanding video analysis systems used in the project’s labs, and the second to make it easier to use IP in security systems and other areas where power supplies could be an issue. “One of the things that we decided to do, when I started working on this project, I was a big believer in IP everywhere,” Abdulkarim says. “So if you want to use an IP infrastructure, when you put PoE over the IP infrastructure it makes it much easier – when you want to install a camera, an access point, a phone – anything – then you can get the power and the data.” Looking to the future, the Aspire project’s immediate focus is on the Asian Games later this year. Abdulkarim says he and his team came under pressure from the Games’ IT department to replace the Aspire network with one fully compatible with the competition’s systems. He says they resisted this, and eventually agreed on a compromise compatibility solution. Abdulkarim also suggests that the Games’ IT manager, who also worked on the Athens Olympics, was favourably impressed by Aspire’s systems compared to his own organisation’s infrastructure. In the longer term, Abdulkarim is working on the Sports City development, which includes a number of specialist hospitals, a stadium and a 300-metre tower. He became responsible for the project’s IT last year, in addition to Aspire, and he says he is working to replicate his achievements at Sports City. “The challenge with Sports City is to repeat and even improve on the success we had at Aspire,” says Abdulkarim. “Our current focus is the Orthopaedic Hospital; it is planned to open at some time in September, and we have already finished all of the infrastructure, in terms of cabling and switches – we’re now in the process of deploying the rest of the systems, such as servers and access control. “In the hospital we have a lot more IP-based systems than at Aspire; because with the earlier project we had to work with some legacy systems due to a delay in the project, although we are upgrading these going forward. Generally the plan is to learn from Aspire’s success, and the mistakes we have made – thankfully very few – and then document the best technologies, and roll them out across the new projects.”||**||

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