CIO, Al Ghurair Group

At the IT department of the well-diversified Al Ghurair Group of Companies, technology is a culture. Not only is the company leading the pack in technology research for in-house consumption, but is evolving from being a technology user to a technology builder.

The real push however for the company, will come when it finally shares its intellectual property (IP) with te rest of the industry. The company’s CIO Hatem Al Sibai said, this technology evolution is clearly going to be the engine for moving up the value chain.

Al Ghurair’s complete shift to open source technologies and platforms is something that most people in the Middle East industry might be familiar with. But what you might not know is that the company’s IT department is, by itself, equipped to be a complete R&D outfit. Additionally, it holds one out of the 15 exclusive global seats on the Oracle advisory board for Enterprise Asset and Application Management. Having built capabilities to control, manage and even build IT projects and roll outs with its in-house staff, Hatem Al Sibai has set his sights on big things.

“The Al Ghurair Group as a whole has five companies each operating in diversified fields from real estate to manufacturing. Technology plays a critical role in the company. IT took seed within the group in 1987 when I came on board to look exclusive on how to build technology into the business. At that point, IT was still a luxury,” says Al Sibai.

Keeping a grip on emerging technology is intrinsic to the IT department. Among one of the best practices instituted within the department is an emerging technology tracker.

“Each IT team is required to present reports on emerging technologies and how some of them might be useful for our organization. This helps us to upgrade knowledge base, skills and even plan the adoption of futuristic technology, “ he adds. Currently, the IT department has three divisions — development (seven-member team), infrastructure (five-member team) and applications (with four consultants).

But did the company ever look at outsourcing as an option to keep a more cost effective grip on technology?

“ We specifically choose to control all elements of a technology roll-out because we believe the industry still needs to mature in terms of SLA agreements that a company may have with its consulting partners,” Al Sibai says.

This is perhaps a point for the regional industry to take on board. According to him, other regions like Europe could cope easier with the concepts of outsourcing and outsourced consulting because the legal system supports such a structure. “But this region too is maturing quickly,” Al Sibai reassures, adding that the Al Ghurair Group has found great value in involving partners with niche skills in new technology areas. The company has also used Indian outsourcing partners for some specific projects.

The Al Ghurair Group’s commitment to using open source technology and software is pioneering in the true sense of the word — having mandated the use of open source as the thumb rule for any IT deployment. Going open source for the company meant much more than just migrating to Linux…Every specific area including security, to middleware to our specialized technologies is built on or using open source.Al Sibai >Text

“Going open source for the company meant much more than just migrating to Linux. For every project that we are rolling out our first choice would be to look at open source products and existing technologies that work in a totally interoperable manner with it. Every specific area including security, to middleware to our specialized technologies is built on or using open source,” Al Sibai says.

New IT investments continue to be a hectic activity within the group. Having one of the largest deployment of Oracle solutions running on Linux, the roll out of additional financial and supply chain modules will continue on the ERP front with additional CRM modules being implemented.

“We are also implementing an open source help desk solution with added functionality to a solution called Scarrab. On the middleware front, we have just completed design and implemented a virtualized middleware platform, enabling one system and technology to talk to another. Existing and easily available technology products were used and developed to build this for roll out,” Al Sibai says.

Among some of the big projects this year is the company’s plan to deploy specialized technology for the group owned shopping malls. This solution will focus on pushing wireless content and location based information to shoppers and visitors to their wireless devices.

“ We anticipate that by 2007, close to 70 per cent of mobile devices that people will carry will be wireless enabled. The whole shopping experience itself will get smarter with the use of technology,” Al Sibai says. However, this is a challenge that the company says will need planning and technology support to overcome and deploy successfully.

“ When dealing with pushing content to small-form factor and small screen devices, we are restricted with the display capabilities and also the human usage factor. There are challenges both on the infrastructure as well as content development front,” he adds. Al Ghurair is currently in discussions with infrastructure service providers and content developers to outsource the development and maintenance of the project.

“This is clearly a typical area where we outsource to experts in niche areas to handle projects for us,” he says.

The Al Ghurair Group is well on its way to make that big technology jump — moving from being just a user of technology to a maker of it. Even as the Middle East industry now starts thinking about building domestic technology innovation, Al Sibai says the IT department is going full steam on building a business and go-to-market strategy for all the IP that it holds. Close discussions with one of the big global three IT consultants to guide the company on IP management issues have already been initiated.

“We have had a lot of encouraging feedback regarding the R&D and development work that we have done for in-house consumption. Big regional conglomerates including a major one from the aviation sector have approached us to look at the possibility of using some of the technology we have developed,” Al Sibai reveals.

Having already been marked as a key reference site for Enterprise Asset Management by Oracle, according to Al Sibai, the management at the Al Ghurair Group is in the process of considering a mandate change that will allow the company to offer its technology and best practice consulting to other market customers.

“ We are however taking our time on it as we need to ensure the proper processes are in place before we request for a mandate change. When we do make the jump into selling our technology to the market, we do believe that it will not be a complete direct presence but through selected partners,” he adds.

At Al Ghurair Group watching TV while at work is not a taboo. Given the fact that this diversified business has interests in businesses ranging from finance to real estate, staying informed is of critical importance. In a recently completed project, built and deployed by the in-house IT department, rich media and television content has been streamed to the desktop of every manager that needs constant access to information.

“We have a total of 500 employees who have access to systems. Out of these, all senior mangers who need to remain in touch with the markets and those who need to follow global developments will have content available for viewing on their desktop,” says Al Sibai.

Instead of opting for a satellite dish to make free-to-air television content available in the traditional fashion, the IT team decided to build a solution that would allow the content to be streamed to unlimited number of users on their desktop.

“We used Linux as the platform to power this solution and we used multicast technology to stream content to infinite number of users. Using open source solutions and encoders we packed the content into a good quality MPEG 4 stream that transfers data and content easily to desktops on the existing network infrastructure at 150kbps,” he says. The key trick was to use technology to compress the content into a small stream that would not require extra investments in networking or bandwidth infrastructure.

The team also built a TV type interface using Apple Quick Time, which sits on the users desktop to allow the user to view the content of his choice. “ This system can also be enabled to deliver this content wirelessly to the desktops,” Al Sibai adds. The entire project took 10 months to complete and is in deployment across the company offices.

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