Unsung heroes

Infrastructure takes on a whole new meaning at Al Ain's UAE University, which encompasses more than 15,000 users and campuses scattered all over the city. IT director Manmohan Singh explains how he's stayed on top of the challenge - while building one of the most progressive IT departments in the region.

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By  Administrator Published  February 16, 2008

Infrastructure takes on a whole new meaning at Al Ain's UAE University, which encompasses more than 15,000 users and campuses scattered all over the city. IT director Manmohan Singh explains how he's stayed on top of the challenge - while building one of the most progressive IT departments in the region.

How critical is the role of the director of IT at UAE University?

I administer all the servers in the university, both Windows and Unix. I also have the security of the whole infrastructure of the university under me as well and most importantly, I am responsible for the complete network and the telecommunications. In essence, I supervise the complete nervous system of the university.

I came here from Singapore, which is very fast paced in comparison to the UAE. But rather than adjusting to the pace here, I’ve made the teams adjust to my pace. Why do we need to do things fast? If you go slowly, you will not accomplish as much as you intend.

I came here from Singapore, which is very fast-paced in comparison to the UAE. But rather than adjusting to the pace here, I've made the teams adjust to my pace. Why do we need to do things fast? If you go slowly, you will not accomplish as much as you intend. I learnt a motto in the military - ‘maximum effort, minimum comfort'. We do the opposite, by working smart, not hard.

The university seems to be continuously updating its core infrastructure. How do you work with vendors to ensure that the projects are successful?

In Singapore, I learnt what I would describe as the right way of doing things, which I'm trying to introduce here. When we buy products, we do a strict evaluation process. We contact the resellers and tell them we are interested, and would like to know what is available.

I always tell resellers: "You are my partner in crime. Whatever I'm going to suggest, you should know if it's good or bad and advise me accordingly. Don't sell me something just for the sake of selling."

The next ownership falls upon the person who's actually evaluating it. We search on the internet and get in touch with all the product's references to get their feedback. I also like to check with Gartner's report, although the magic quadrant is a bit misleading when it comes to new companies and new products, because they are not on the scale yet.

Do you often choose to work with new companies and products rather than established vendors?

There are a couple of new companies with new products that are marvellous, because they have integrated all the best qualities from the available products, so sometimes we need to give those guys a chance.

If you are the first in market to use a product, what you need to do is a very thorough, detailed analysis. Since I came here, I've been introducing this concept to all my team leaders. I've told them I will not do anything until they do a proof of concept. In the proof of concept timeframe, we'll know the product inside out - what its limitations and requirements are.

Is it difficult to get support in Al Ain?

It was initially difficult. But a lot of vendors are eager to do business with the university. One reseller has even located an engineer for us in Al Ain. We actually insisted on it as part of the contract, because the particular server under maintenance was a critical server.

If it was just a matter of powering up a server, we could handle it. But if it's a hardware issue, then it's difficult, because we can't open up certain servers under warranty to replace hardware.

You have a reputation for taking a long time to evaluate products - but you equally have a reputation for living on the bleeding edge. How do you balance being conservative and constantly wanting to deploy the latest technology?

What I've always believed is that technology is just a tool - it's the people that make the difference. At the same time, we don't want to be too far behind the latest technologies.

As my team evolves, what I have also done is group all my team leaders together with myself and we form something like a ‘think tank', which meets every week on Wednesday. After we finish the agenda on the current projects, we can brainstorm the things we may require in the future. It becomes a free-for-all session where the team leaders throw mud at each other and afterwards, work on solutions.

I will say that no idea is a bad idea - it's just a matter of timing. If you have an idea at the right time, it's a saleable idea. I will always listen to any proposals - my office door is always open.

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