Grand designs on IT mega-projects

Not content with IT implementation headaches on a small scale, the Middle East is developing a name for huge projects that include leading technology implementations. ACN reports.

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By  Brid-Aine Conway Published  August 9, 2008

Not content with IT implementation headaches on a small scale, the Middle East is developing a name for huge projects that include leading technology implementations. ACN reports.

Mega-projects, particularly in real estate, are a concept that the Middle East has adopted and made its own at an astonishing rate. The idea of building an entire city from the ground up, usually to support an industry (Saudi Arabia's Economic Cities, Cairo's Smart Village and Dubai Internet City to name a few), seems to faze very few of the region's governments and large enterprises.

What all of these mega-projects have in common is state-of-the-art technology. They usually aim to build the architectural real estate along with a cutting edge IT infrastructure that will support the industry the city is aimed at and provide the residents with smart buildings, energy efficiency and anytime-anywhere access to the internet.

By default you will over-run the budget the moment you miss any of your deadlines so you need to realise that budgets and project deadlines are complementary.

As the city's physical structure is planned and designed before any work begins, so too must the IT infrastructure, network design and eventual applications and software be carefully planned for before the first cable is laid. Projects of this size are not only more complex, but also on a much longer-term than IT managers or CIOs are used to planning for, and of course, bring their own set of challenges.

To further complicate things, a lot of these projects are starting from scratch and building an infrastructure which has no predecessor for reference, as Mohammed Shah, CTO of Knowledge Economic City Al Madinah (KEC) in KSA, explains.

"One of the biggest challenges we faced really is that we're embarking on being one of the first global cities that will have a truly integrated smart city infrastructure.

"There are lots of places around the world where they've done pockets of things, bits and pieces, predominantly around a legacy environment. We very much have a greenfield, clean-sheet type of approach which is a huge challenge and this is something that is re-iterated to us by international partners and vendors - that they've not come across anything else as comprehensive and as innovative as this - and it's a challenge for us," he says.

"I don't have the luxury of looking back at site X and saying; ‘Well I can cut and paste that and put it into my city.' That's one of the challenges really when you are breaking this new frontier in terms of a technological enablement for a community, in a real estate environment," Shah adds.

Another challenge lies in the complexity of the project and the sheer number of vendors, suppliers and workers that need to come together at the same time to meet a deadline.

"In spite of having a serious project planner such as Primavera or MS project plan, you are bound to miss the deadlines nine times out of ten. This is because each task depends on so many different things and it is to be expected that one of these will miss the milestone.

You need to involve the suppliers at every step and make them realise the implications of delays," says GV Rao, ICT director for United Development Company, which is the company behind The Pearl Qatar, an artificial island being built to support residential, commercial and educational facilities.

Caspar Herzog, strategy and operations director for Cisco Saudi Arabia, agrees with Rao: "Ultimately a mega-project is something that is obviously larger, but also in many cases more complex and the complexity is usually that there are lots of moving parts - there are lots of suppliers, lots of suppliers of suppliers, lots of different groups even within one company and even more so through several companies."

Cisco is involved (on various levels) with a number of regional mega-projects including Saudi Arabia's Economic Cities' projects and Energy City Qatar. Going with a long-standing well-known vendor such as Cisco is important in order to ensure a project has access to the necessary skills and knowledge, according to KEC's Shah.

‘In our network design requirement we reached out and coordinated with the world's top networking companies and at the end of that process we selected Cisco to help us with the network design. Cisco has access to experience, professionals and many international sites, to bring knowledge and experience. It's not necessarily about manpower, it's all about brainpower," he says.

Shah deals with the current shortage of skilled IT personnel through a combination of alliances with top vendors and outsourcing.

"For these large city projects there is a significant effort from an IT point of view and we believe in a model of utilising expertise where necessary - moving wherever possible to an outsourcing situation, where we can be extremely agile. When I suddenly need to move from 20 people to 200, I can very quickly change the shape of my profile in terms of resourcing and then I can be very nimble and thin, then go back again to 20 after being 200.

"Because when you put in a large infrastructure like this, over a time span you need different skills at different stages so outsourcing is an excellent model of bringing in the high quality relevant resources at the relevant stage of your journey in building up this infrastructure and ultimately the systems that support it to provide the environment that our users will be enjoying later on when the city is fully inhabited.

It isn't a predominantly outsourced-only perspective, of course. You have a mixture of internal and outsourced skills and one of the critical things is when those people go, the knowledge stays," he says.

Cisco's Herzog feels that vendors need to be involved in the project as early as possible and maintain a close relationship to effectively plan with IT managers.

"The most important thing, especially the larger a project is, is to be involved very early on and to help, not just the IT manager but to be involved as a trusted advisor at the very beginning when from a business point of view certain decisions are being made. This is so that you build your own understanding of what really needs to be done from a business point of view, and then later from a technology point of view as your future client is building up his understanding.

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