Route master

Dubai’s rapid expansion has put its transport system under enormous pressure, but the emirate’s new Roads and Transport Authority is set to shake the city up. NME talks to its IT director and its head of infrastructure about greenfield IT challenges.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  November 9, 2006

|~|bahrozyan200.jpg|~|“We needed a partner that understood our requirements, was able to deliver quickly, but would also be able to work with us in a sustainable mode” Ahmed Bahrozyan, director of IT, RTA.|~|Traffic in Dubai is reaching legendary status – it is a constant topic of discussion among the city’s population, and a source of increasing frustration to anyone doing business in the emirate. In fairness, this is mainly a function of the rapid expansion of the city, and a single public organisation trying to keep up with dozens of new developments. In order to alleviate this problem, Dubai’s rulers set up the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) in November 2005, putting all transport-related issues under one organisation for the first time. “The RTA ended up inheriting many functions from the Municipality, mainly relating to public transport and roads infrastructure and maintenance; we also inherited functions from Dubai Police, including driver and vehicle registration,” explains Ahmed Bahrozyan, director of IT at RTA. “The obvious objective of the RTA is to bring everything related to roads infrastructure and public transport into one organisation, so that it will be easier to coordinate, easier to provide integrated public transport services, and easier to solve the traffic problems that are well-publicised in Dubai,” Bahrozyan says. In IT terms, the challenge for RTA was much more immediate – the organisation needed to get its IT infrastructure up and running as fast as possible. Initially RTA relied on IT systems from Dubai Municipality, but the organisation’s management wanted to move to their own infrastructure in the shortest possible time. Bahrozyan says: “Our initial target was to take as little time as possible to become independent, but at the same time to migrate all of these applications which were sitting with DM and Dubai Police into our infrastructure. “That may be very easy in terms of saying it, but when we came in we didn’t have anything in terms of IT – we didn’t even have a data centre. We had to lobby our senior management to move a few people out of their offices, and establish our IT section there.” RTA’s own IT department came into being in December 2005, and initially had only a small team to start the transition process. One of the early challenges was to balance RTA’s desire to become operationally independent with making sound long-term decisions and establishing a robust IT infrastructure. “There had to be a balance between moving fast, which the organisation wanted us to do, but also spending enough time in evaluating the possible alternatives in the market, and going with not only the right the partner,” says Bahrozyan. “We needed to make sure we had a partner that understood our requirements, was able to deliver quickly, but would also be able to work with us in a sustainable mode, to ensure they’re able to help us in our drive to make sure the business is running, and the business is getting what it needs from IT.” This led to RTA’s policy of vendor management, where the organisation seeks to establish either a firm partnership with a dominant vendor, or else healthy competition between vendors in a more contested sector. For the bulk of its infrastructure, RTA selected Nortel, who provided virtually all of the core networking infrastructure. RTA’s network infrastructure consists of four core Nortel Passport 8610 switches, two main distribution switches and a number of secondary Nortel 5520 Gigabit PoE distribution switches, along with a separate external zone, for WAN connections, and a DMZ, for web servers. All the main switches and networking components are Nortel; these are augmented with a high-availability cluster of Juniper firewalls, through which both internal and external traffic passes – RTA has allowed for the possibility of threats of infections from users, through USB flash drives or CD-ROMs, for example. “The design considerations were having an enterprise architecture, and an infrastructure architecture that fitted into the enterprise architecture – although we didn’t have an enterprise architecture in the early days, we knew we would be deploying one, and everything would be revolving around it,” says Indranil Guha, manager, IT infrastructure management at the authority.||**|||~|traffic200a.jpg|~||~|“The next consideration was to have a suitable and flexible design which is scaleable, because at that point in time – and even now – it was very unpredictable as to who exactly our IT will serve; it may not only be our internal employees, it may be our strategic partners such as Wipro, who are on the ground, using our infrastructure services as part of our outsourcing strategy.” In terms of the wider IT infrastructure, RTA is currently operating around 55 blade servers, using 6Tbytes of storage, shortly to rise to 14Tbytes. These are operated from an on-site data centre, which has the capacity to expand in order to meet RTA’s growing IT demands. The whole of RTA’s infrastructure is based on open standards, in order to ensure interoperability and eliminate vendor tie-in. “It took us around three-and-a-half months to get our infrastructure up and running – we went live on 22 April 2006. We started the planning process sometime in December, and by April we were providing independent IT services to RTA staff,” says Bahrozyan with a certain amount of pride. “The advantage with RTA was that we had a greenfield site where we didn’t have much to inherit,” he adds. “In terms of infrastructure, networking components and so forth, we had the freedom to select what we wanted. “To a large extent that’s an advantage as we had freedom of choice, which doesn’t always happen when you inherit an IT organisation. However you also have to make sure you spend enough time analysing and making the right decision, because this is not something that you can rip out and say you’re not happy with it.” The other major infrastructure aspect to RTA’s IT was the large number of remote sites the authority will be bringing in; currently its has 15 sites running, and will be bringing in current Dubai Police sites in the future, taking the number of sites up to around 200 in total. While RTA’s core infrastructure was built from scratch, Bahrozyan and his team also had to deal with existing applications and remote sites which did not use the same vendor infrastructure as the core – the Dubai Police sites are a case in point, as some of them use Cisco networking products. In order to get round this problem, RTA’s IT team made sure they adopted as interoperable system as possible. He explains: “One of the things we considered when we chose the solution was interoperability – again, the best practice is to be interoperable with other systems. So we had recently completed an engagement where we were migrating our police application, and that infrastructure has some Cisco components as well. “So we were able to demonstrate the interoperability – we went through a proof-of-concept which went extremely well; that was actually very pleasing to me, because interoperability is something that people talk about a lot, but unless you actually see it working, it’s hard to believe,” he adds. A key plank of RTA’s startup strategy has been to prepare for much of its day-to-day operations to be outsourced. The IT department has begun this process already, having brought in Indian outsourcing services provider Wipro to run its help desk and IT management functions. Guha says: “RTA is outsourcing all the service desk functions, so any end device functions – telephone, desktop, and so on – that is dealt with by the service desk. Some of it is serviced by the in-house service desk – we have Wipro engineers here in the building.” ||**|||~|guha200a.jpg|~|“RTA is outsourcing all the service desk functions, so any end device functions – telephone, desktop, and so on – that is dealt with by the service desk.” Indranil Guha, manager, IT infrastructure management, RTA.|~|Wipro have a near shore service desk, in Dubai’s Internet City, as well as a centre of excellence in India, which also has connectivity to RTA’s systems. The company also has copies of all the authority’s service level agreements (SLAs) with its vendors, so Wipro can escalate problems to the appropriate vendor if necessary. According to Guha, RTA has strict SLAs in place, especially in terms of time to response and time to fix; the organisation is looking to tighten all its SLAs, in order to facilitate its outsourcing plans. “This is one of the areas organisations struggle with – what do I outsource, what do I not outsource,” adds Bahrozyan. “In our case, we decided that anything that is day-to-day operation – where there’s not very much decision making, you can put a process in place and it’s just a matter of someone implementing the process – those are good candidates for outsourcing. So we ended up doing lots of outsourcing in these areas, such as backups, checking logs, patch management.” By outsourcing most of RTA’s routine functions, Bahrozyan and his team believe they can free up most of their time to tackle core business problems, rather than dealing with issues which only require a process to be adhered to. Bahrozyan explains: “Even when someone’s PC isn’t working, somebody needs a laptop, somebody has a printer problem – these sort of things we want to phase out, and actually have someone do it for us, but at the same time we want the same level of vendor management, to make sure we have some point of contact, some representative who is looking after these aspects of the operations.” The foundation for the outsourced operations will be SLAs, in order that RTA will be able to deal in metrics, instead of, just saying “We’re not happy with the service”. Bahrozyan and Guha also acknowledge that RTA will never entirely divest itself of day-to-day operations – Guha says: “It will not become completely zero, but close”. As more RTA operations come on stream, both IT and non-IT, Bahrozyan says it is likely increasing numbers of them will be outsourced, in order to facilitate a focus on the core business of RTA. By building in this from the start of projects, the RTA management can make sure they suffer fewer problems, for example with proprietary processes developed over decades within an organisation. One example of building in outsourcing from the start came with the deployment and handover of RTA’s Nortel infrastructure. Although the authority had not chosen its outsourcing partner at the start of the implementation, Wipro had come aboard before the end of the project. This allowed the Nortel integration team to bring both the RTA IT department and Wipro up to speed on the system, eliminating a painful transition phase. “There was a good job done by the Nortel team, to make sure they had the right people with us, to not only hand over the project to us, but also to Wipro,” says Bahrozyan. “This was critical for us, because we had to make sure that as one vendor was leaving, the outsourcing vendor was capable of taking over the operations. ||**|||~|traffic200b.jpg|~||~|“The operations were ongoing – it wasn’t like we had a cut-off date – and we had to make sure that the shift from Nortel and the beta team was seamless, and the users didn’t notice anything from the back end.” The next stage for RTA’s outsourcing will be a stabilisation phase, where the organisation’s management reduce the amount of involvement in the day-to-day processes while Wipro managers and technicians grow used to the systems. Guha says he expects this phase to last two to three months, before Wipro is ready to assume full control of the outsourced functions. Once this happens, and RTA’s IT team is free to concentrate on more strategic matters, Bahrozyan can start to plan in detail the ongoing development of RTA’s IT services. Coming from an e-government background at Dubai Municipality, Bahrozyan naturally has e-services for the public very high up his list. “E-government, for example, is definitely going to be a big focus for 2007, meaning lots of online services for the public,” he says. “This means we need an infrastructure that is very robust, very scaleable, that can handle the number of transaction requests which will be sent to it. The system will also need to be able to provide very high levels of security, dealing with government information being opened up to the outside world.” A major factor to take into consideration at RTA is the likely expansion of its staff and services. At the moment RTA provides IT services to around 1,000 staff directly, in the form of workstations and email accounts – there are additional employees, such as workmen and field operatives, who do not directly need IT services at present. RTA expects to double this number within a few years, partly through hiring directly, but also through migration of staff from DM and the Police. Another migration is set to come in the form of additional systems – the process of moving existing systems from RTA’s two main parent organisations is now mostly complete, according to Bahrozyan. “We’ve also taken into consideration that once we migrate the existing applications from DM and the Police – currently around 80% of that migration is complete – we will be looking next year onwards into providing a lot more solutions that will help the business of RTA, help the customers and so forth,” he says. With projects such as Dubai Metro, proposed water and marine services, multiple new bus types with advanced high-tech services suggested, and the ever-growing Dubai road network, RTA will be a busy organisation. The challenge for its IT department will be no less great; it will need to make sure technology is the least of the problems facing the one-year old agency.||**||

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