Al Ain Zoo builds IT for growth

Al Ain Zoo has undertaken a wide range of IT projects to upgrade its infrastructure, to support the facility’s ambitious expansion plans to transform itself into a leading centre for the conservation of the wildlife of the desert world.

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Al Ain Zoo builds IT for growth Ahmed Aljneibi, manager of IT Support for Al Ain Zoo, has been involved with a number of the projects to update the technology solutions in use.
By  Mark Sutton Published  April 16, 2013

Al Ain Zoo has undertaken a wide range of IT projects to upgrade its infrastructure, to support the facility’s ambitious expansion plans to transform itself into a leading centre for the conservation of the wildlife of the desert world.

Expanding any organisation usually means an expansion of the IT infrastructure to match, whether the expansion is in terms of headcount, business activities, geography or other factors — IT usually needs to expand to meet the new business requirements. For the Al Ain Zoo based on the outskirts of Al Ain in the UAE, although it may not appear to be a traditional business, IT still needs to match the operational needs.

Founded by Sheikh Zayed in 1967, the zoo announced a major program of expansion in 2010, including the building of a resort hotel, increased park space, residential projects, conservation and breeding centre and the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre, a state of the art educational facility. The expansion meant a major increase in head count, and the addition of new buildings, with a corresponding increase in demand for IT. The zoo also needed to overhaul its infrastructure, which was outdated in some areas, and non-existent in others.

Ahmed Aljneibi, manager of IT Support for Al Ain Zoo, who joined the organisation at the start of 2011, explained that the zoo required updates to IT across a range of areas, which resulted in a number of projects with systems integrator Emitac Enterprise Solutions.

“When I joined Al Ain Zoo, there were a lot of requirements from the business and end users which could not be accomplished because there was no efficient infrastructure. Emitac helped us to provide the hardware and infrastructure” he said.

The various infrastructure projects undertaken in recent years included backup, disaster recovery, virtualisation, storage and network infrastructure, while at the same time; the zoo has also added additional services to cater both to its staff and to visitors.

One of the most challenging areas was in connecting the whole site. As an older facility, with buildings dispersed over a wide area, the network fell short of the requirements of modern IT, Aljneibi said.

“There was no cabled-network infrastructure between the main buildings. The buildings were connected via point-to-point wireless technology and we’ve been facing some issues because of temperature and the weather conditions, and sometimes natural obstacles between the buildings.

“One of the challenges was that we didn’t have any maps or drawings to assist us to pull our fibre optic cables in order to connect the main buildings. So we have asked Etisalat if they could help us by providing any drawings for Al Ain Zoo. They shared some information with us and we utilised their ducts, but there were still some locations where we needed to dig our own ducts and manholes. Now, most of our main buildings are connected with fibre optic links,” he explained.

“Moreover, we have two other locations (Al Ain Zoo Head Office and the project office which is located in the Senaiya Area. All three sites are connected via Etisalat MPLS. At the same time, we have WiMAX links between our Head Office and the Zoo,” Aljneibi adds.

To support the general business applications such as Microsoft Exchange for additional users at the Zoo, a new server room was implemented at the Zoo, using HP hardware. Around 80% of the servers have been virtualised using VMware.

“One of our corporative values is sustainability,” said Aljneibi. “Virtualisation, in terms of sustainability, reduces the hardware down into one box, with a cloud-based system or virtualised environment. That reduces the electricity usage and the heat that is coming out of the devices.”

Sustainability is also exemplified in Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre (SZDLC), a new building, which has been designed and built using environmentally friendly materials, with efficient power consumption, and the IT department is also using green-certified PC and server hardware from HP that will be used in the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre.

To support the new infrastructure, Al Ain Zoo also deployed new storage infrastructure, in the form of an HP EVA4400 SAN, with HP Command View EVA software, which includes simplified management, automatic performance load balancing, dynamic configuration, and re-configuration. For backup and recovery, Emitac installed and configured a file system backup for Windows workstations and Windows and Red Hat Linux Server. Emitac also provided training for staff on the HP StorageWorks solutions.

Al Ain Zoo has also improved its disaster recovery, with host-based replication from head office site to the Zoo site, including replication of the file server, replication of SQL server and replication of SharePoint server as well. This replication helped the zoo to optimise communication between the primary and secondary sites, and to prioritise critical applications for failover, reducing cost and complexity.

Infrastructure and general business applications are not the only things that the IT department supports, it is also responsible for other systems to cater to visitors to the zoo, including Gateway Ticketing System from Prologic, and InfoGenesis and Eatec which are both provided by Agilysys for point-of-sale and inventory systems respectively.

“IT, like any other department, should align its own strategies with the overall strategies of the business. We are working very closely with our end users to come up with solutions that will help the business to reach its goals and objectives,” Aljneibi explained.

Another System that will help advance the zoo’s strategic processes is the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), a web-based application which tracks species, animal’s medical history, and other data. The application was originally developed by the International Species Information System (ISIS) and it is currently in use with zoos around the world.

Aljneibi visited San Diego Zoo last year to see the system in action, and has since introduced it to a group of end users at Al Ain Zoo, to encourage its adoption.

“They [San Diego Zoo] introduced me to the system, and explained to me how it would help Al Ain Zoo to improve and enhance its core business. When I came back, I introduced the system to our concerned departments and users who might be interested in ZIMS and can contribute to it. The system is still in BETA version and it might take a couple of years to have it up and running with all its modules,” he said.

The IT Department is looking to extend its services to support more applications which would enable more services for end users and visitors. One of the projects is the rollout of a MESH wireless network, which will provide high speed wireless coverage of the whole site.

“That will give us an easy way to provide services, not only for our end users, but also for our visitors, as well,” Aljneibi said. “An example is we could provide a solution [for our visitors], if someone is standing in front of a lion exhibit, with a smart phone application connected to our MESH wireless, then all related information about lions could be accessed. It is just an idea, but we could also provide virtual tours by accessing our website and that would encourage people to come and visit Al Ain Zoo to experience the fun!”

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