Central command

As one of the Gulf’s largest media and communications agencies, Middle East Communications Networks understands only too well the power of communication – as well as lateral thinking. So when it became time to pick a new e-mail service provider, the company went against the grain and consolidated its services into a single provider.

Tags: Cloud computingConsolidationE-mailMiddle East Communications Networks (www.mcnholding.com)United Arab Emirates
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Central command KRISHNAN: We internally were challenged with a single SLA, whereas our vendors had different SLAs.
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By  Imthishan Giado Published  March 14, 2010 Arabian Computer News Logo

If the modern enterprise can be equated to the human body, then it’s no exaggeration is to suggest that e-mail constitutes its lifeblood.

Much like the dialtone when you pick up a desk phone, employees come to work and expect it be available at all times. Few are aware of the complexity of the infrastructure and the level of security required to protect them from dangers such as phishing, or nuisances like spam – not to mention the ever-growing need for storage as firms are forced to preserve these communications for legal purposes.

Few are surprised then, when the humble e-mail system and the services required to support it can eventually grow out of control into an untameable monster, consuming cash at a furious rate to just remain functional. But not every enterprise succumbs to this malady, however.

UAE-based marketing and communications agency Middle East Communications Networks (MCN) was faced with a situation where multiple service providers were involved in its e-mail infrastructure, which necessitates multiple service-level-agreements with the various vendors. Even though each vendor provided world-class services, MCN decided that consolidation was the best way forward and opted for a new single service provider, MimeCast Networks which would manage its e-mails as well as provide security and archiving duties.

Arun Kumar Krishnan, regional IT controller at MCN explains the infrastructure setup at the agency: “We have about 1100 employees in our MENA network. We’ve got infrastructure of about 75 servers, 1100 users, 22-odd software programs, 20 service providers. About 70% of those are PC computers and another 30% are Apple Macintoshes, which is our key product when it comes to development and stuff like that.

“In terms of the IT team, I have about 18 people here in the UAE, extending to about 35 people in the MENA region. We’ve got about seven or eight business units, which roll up into the group company known as MCN, which is a full-fledged marketing and communications agency. We have media houses, creative agencies, public relations agencies and so on, all under the central MCN banner,” continues Krishnan.

With such a vast portfolio, e-mail clearly assumes a vital position within the IT umbrella to ensure that all these organisations run smoothly. Krishnan notes that management was aware and pushed heavily for the new system.

“We are in the communication business. If people don’t have the information that they require at the right point of time, the information becomes useless to them. We are mostly challenged with having a high SLA requirement across the various business practices, especially the PR and communications agencies. If you don’t get the right brief from the client on time, the right product will not be delivered,” he explains.

As Krishnan explains, MCN does not host its e-mail systems in-house, instead preferring to offload it to external providers that can vet the incoming messages for spam and other threats – which has the additional benefit of reducing its own server load. This task was previously held by service provider Apollo Hosting, but during the downturn last year, Krishnan noticed that service levels had dropped drastically. As he recalls, few vendors are willing to admit to such a transgression.

“In most of the cases, what they say is: ‘We don’t have an issue!’ There was a lot of finger-pointing and their services were becoming bizarre to be honest. We took a decision after one or two attempts to improve the service – and then we saw that there wasn’t much response from their side – to switch our service provider,” he states.

He says that the number of SLAs involved was also a significant factor: “We internally were challenged with a single SLA, whereas our vendors had different SLAs. We also had disparate systems for threat management, e-mail hosting, spam protection and so on. It was difficult to manage all these aspects of the same service. We were looking for a single service provider who could handle all these four areas and at the same time, provide a better service level than what we had. Also, in certain markets, we don’t have static IP addresses so having all the e-mails passing through a central host actually helps."

The initial discussions for a new service provider began in February 2009. To understand the depth of the challenge facing Krishnan and his team, it’s important to understand the number of layers in the previous build – and be aware that there were few providers that could offer a similar level of service in one package.

“When we started it off, there was only Mimecast in this region. We used to have a first level with an array of service providers and a second level which provided us with threat management and spam filtering. We had both Message Labs and Postini, while some of our offices used to have Trend Micro scanning engines. Some of our offices used to have Websense and IronPort. We had a combination of all these products and services running in our office. We found that Postini provided the best quality of service for the amount that they were charging and they were more flexible than Message Labs, which were equally good. We’ve had absolutely no problems with either of these two,” confirms Krishan.

“But they never had a store/forward system and it was mandatory for us to have a cloud of e-mail hosts on the top. That means that we also need a next tier of archiving system. Neither of those tiers provided for e-mail archiving, so we needed another tier. That meant we were talking about having three separate tiers and then having to manage those separate tiers,” he continues.

The budget, and how to cut it

MCN’s Arun Krishnan reveals that that the current budget for MCN is in the range of $1 million to $1.5 million. He won’t be nailed down on the exact amount, except that it equates to about 1.5% of revenue. However, he will admit that it has reduced from previous years. “It has gone down actually from last year,” he says. “Early this year we moved into a central corporate licensing programme, so that actually brought down our costing on the budget front by about 30%.

For instance, take Microsoft licensing. Last year we were on our own. We were negotiating for 2000 people and until about 2008, MCN was handling the business all by itself.” “Last year we got majority acquired by the InterPublic Group (IPG). IPG negotiates for 45,000 people. So obviously we have moved to a Level D with Microsoft, as opposed to Level A if we were to do it alone. That brought down licensing by about 20%,” continues Krishnan.

State of security

Many enterprises have concerns about the security of cloud computing-basing initiatives, particularly when it comes to entrusting your data to a third-party. Arun Krishnan says if that you plan your permissions strategy appropriately, most of the concerns are unfounded. “The whole environment where the e-mails reside basically is restricted to only our admins.

There’s only one person who’s got the authority to go in and make those changes. That password is sealed and kept in an envelope in a folder with the management. Other people can only do technical configuration changes. We’ve also signed an agreement with Mimecast saying that the contents of that e-mail is kept secure and not transferred across to anybody else,” he says.

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