Driven by success

United Al-Saqer Group is centralising and delivering its entire IT estate as a service

Tags: Gulf Business MachinesUnited Arab Emirates
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Driven by success Osama Abushaban, head of ICT, United Al-Saqer Group (ITP Images)
By  Daniel Shane Published  June 14, 2011

For the automobile enthusiast, the highways of the United Arab Emirates are a proverbial Shangri-La of luxury vehicles. 

On any given day, you can see countless examples of some of the most recognisable - and not to mention expensive - automotive brands cruising the streets of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

It perhaps comes as no surprise then that the Gulf nation is home to the world's largest dealer in cars built by Rolls-Royce, the name perhaps best associated with motoring elegance. The dealership in question is Abu Dhabi Motors, which opened its new Rolls-Royce and BMW showroom in the city in April 2011. 

The 10,000 square feet location has space for five top-of-the-range Rolls-Royce models, as well as featuring a high-tech service centre, and customer theatre and lounging areas.However, the new site is also home to a much larger operation; that of United United Al-Saqer Group, a major Abu Dhabi conglomerate, whose other business interests encompass a diverse array of industries, including companies that supply commercial vehicles, heavy machinery, healthcare and real estate. 

Each of these entities has its own branch offices geographically spread across different locations in the UAE, such as Al Ain, Dubai and Sharjah.United Al-Saqer Group's new headquarters is not only the focal point of the group's various business operations, but also its IT. 

As part of the move to the premises in the UAE capital's Umm Al Nar district, United Al-Saqer Group has embarked on a hugely ambitious project to centralise its entire IT infrastructure, and then provide it back to each company in the group as a service."Our objective was an investment that would centralise our ICT services and to do a full rehabilitation project for the entire infrastructure - which we have succeeded [in doing]," explains United Al-Saqer Group's head of ICT, Osama Abushaban.There was one major obstacle standing in the way of this move though: United Al-Saqer Group's new HQ was being built on the same site as its existing office. 

Making this switchover, without disturbing any of the company's existing business was a mammoth task, Abushaban recalls. "We decided to rebuild the new office at the same place, and in two phases, without disturbing the operations - that was really the challenge."In achieving this objective, the company turned to experienced Gulf-based systems integrator GBM, a company that Abushaban says has an intimate knowledge United Al-Saqer Group's business and the quality of service it demands. "GBM have been a partner with us for more than 12 years, which gives them a good reputation," Abushaban observes. 

"They understand our business, our requirements. We have good relations in terms of finance, business and technology, and that made our project with them easier."In terms of technology, the United Al-Saqer Group project involved a complete array of infrastructure IT, all of which had to be installed and integrated into a data centre located within the new building. 

The planning and designing stage alone took approximately two years. "It was a full infrastructure project," Abushaban says. "It was covering the data centre, networking, active components, a wireless implementation, a security implementation, IP telephony."One notable networking component integrated by GBM is a full unified communications suite from US vendor Cisco. 

Using this, staff at United Al-Saqer Group can be contacted through a single phone number, regardless of where they are in the building, via wireless handsets.Away from the networks, United Al-Saqer Group is making extensive use of VMware virtualisation software to cut down the amount of servers used by the company. This reduced hardware dependency, Abushaban says, has not only reduced its infrastructure costs, but also bolstered its environmental credentials.

United Al-Saqer Group is now not only delivering services like email and internet access from its Abu Dhabi office, but also its core, mission critical applications. 

These include Microsoft Dynamics GP, for financial management, and various vertical programs for functions such as HR, purchasing and facilities management, from its central data centre in Abu Dhabi. These are delivered to each of the branch companies elsewhere in the UAE via an MPLS IP VPN connection. As a result, none of the company's other offices will run any of their own IT whatsoever, Abushaban says. 

"They have nothing to do with any IT infrastructure - they are taking all the IT offerings from here - like internet, email, telephony, applications, connectivity and support. There is not even any IT support at the branches."Importantly, United Al-Saqer Group is not only centralising the IT behind functions such as accounting and purchasing, but it is also moving the staff behind these units to its new HQ. Abushaban says that this allows its branch offices to focus on doing business, and not be burdened by administration. "All of these companies are now just revenue centres and they are focusing on their business segment directly - they have nothing to do with the head office," he explains. "The head office is fully outsourcing everything to them."

Another significant change for the better that Abushaban and GBM have implemented is a new approach to how United Al-Saqer Group's head office provides IT support to its branches based elsewhere in the UAE. Leveraging the ITIL concept of process management, United Al-Saqer Group has developed a ticketing system whereby most problems or incidents at branch offices can be resolved without requiring a visit from a technician."About 70% of the tickets don't require someone to physically go to the branches," Abushaban explains. "Eighty percent of the other 30%, the support team can do it over the phone, and advise the end user how to do it from their end."

One eminent consequence of the project, Abushaban says, is that United Al-Saqer Group is reducing its dependency on outsourced IT services. "Two or three years ago, prior to my joining [the business], 95 people in IT services were outsourced from this company, and there was maybe five employees [working internally]," he recalls.Following the work United Al-Saqer Group has done so far, it now employs a skeleton IT function of just 18 employees, the vast majority of whom are in-house, and work at the company's new Abu Dhabi headquarters. 

This drive to in-house IT staff has ultimately benefited United Al-Saqer Group, Abushaban says. "Once you in-house, you have more control over the resources - the employees - and they understand the business and its requirements."United Al-Saqer Group employs approximately 2,500 staff, many of whom rely on IT and connectivity for their roles. Any outage while switching over to the company's centralised approach would have been disastrous, leaving employees unable to do their jobs. "It's not easy to work on a live environment, especially one that is a service that generates money," admits Abushaban. 

Considering this, Abushaban says it that it was essential that both he and United Al-Saqer Group's IT partner, GBM, kept an extremely close eye on the transition to the new infrastructure was progressing. "You have to be aware of every single thing you do, day-to-day, to make sure everything is going fine and smooth. Otherwise, if there is any disruption in any service, all of the branches are out too."

The project is still far from completion, with a further two phases that will see the company fully complete the construction of its new Abu Dhabi HQ. There is further work to be done on rolling out United Al-Saqer Group's centralised, service-based approach to IT, he says, with some the remote branches not yet fully hooked up.

So far though, head of ICT Osama Abushaban claims that his company has made significant savings on its IT infrastructure costs.While the vision for the project stemmed from United Al-Saqer Group, Abushaban says ultimately, at least part of its success was down to the mutually beneficial relationship his company holds with its systems integrator, GBM. "We appreciated their sense of urgency when it comes to some issues," he observes. "Our relationship is not supplier-customer - it's financially-related, but it's a partnership, because our success is their success." 

When all of the work is finally finished, Abushaban believes, the company's new approach to IT will be in harmony with that of its approach to customer service. "It's about reflecting the image of United United Al-Saqer Group," he explains. "We are just following a philosophy to have the highest customer satisfaction when it comes to the sector."

2611 days ago
rabih hassan

I have been witnessing Al-Saqr group transformation in both business and IT platforms (mainly led by Oussama) with a detailed close eyes. I have admired the ambitious planning and the high standards of technology adoption and deployment.
Oussama did not leave any chances for any gap, even in minor details, he is always on top of everything: best practices are his secret weapon and alignment between business requirements and IT services is still his special and favourite recipe.
Wish Oussama and the Group the best of success for so many years to come.

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