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Wed 1 Apr 2009 04:00 AM

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Beam focused

With a strategic plan and an astute IT team, ArabSat is set to expand its fleet and grow its customer base.

With a strategic plan and an astute IT team, ArabSat is set to expand its fleet and grow its customer base.

Few IT managers in the region have the vision of technology and business working in unison that Bassam Al-Ashqar does.

"My primary responsibility is strategic in nature, which involves planning and executing long term integration of IT into the business processes of my organisation. Positioning IT strategically as a business enabler that gives my firm a competitive edge in leveraging new business opportunities and meeting the challenges of a changing interlinked global economy is my goal," says Al-Ashqar.

It seems fitting then that he is the IT director at ArabSat (Arab Satellite Communications Organisation), which was founded by 21 Arab countries in 1976 to provide satellite communications to the region. The company, which currently has four satellites in operation and covers areas of Middle East, Africa, Turkey, Iran and parts of Europe, is set on an expansion course whereby it plans to launch one satellite every year from now until 2012.

With headquarters in Riyadh, earth stations at Dirab and Tunisia and other sales locations, and around 50% of the total employee base of 200 personnel working out of these remote locations, it is needless to say that ArabSat is a high-level, demanding user of technology with little tolerance for anything but the best.

In order to increase efficiency across operations, the IT team at ArabSat decided that a centralised infrastructure would be the best way forward and implemented the same around three years back.

"Since we do not have IT staff in our remote locations, it was obviously much easier to manage operations with a centralised infrastructure. Around three years back, we formed our first five-year strategic plan for IT and during this time we set up our infrastructure, networking, apps - everything. And we have been following this five-year plan since then," says Al-Ashqar.

With this architecture, all the major systems are located at the primary datacentre in Riyadh. Dirab and Tunisia are both linked to the Riyadh network over 1Mbps VSAT-links. The infrastructure incorporates around 150 different solutions from over 40 vendors. The IT staff of ten is also concentrated at the Riyadh office.

Reaching out

This set-up was found to be satisfactory for ArabSat's usage pattern until it decided to implement an Oracle ERP solution with multiple modules.

"Oracle is the main application that covers the financial, HR, CRM and field services functions of our organisation. We use over 26 modules from the solution, and this implementation was part of the five year plan. With this we faced an issue, we found the remote sites could not run these technologies with the satellite WAN technology. This is when we started looking for a solution to enable remote interaction better," says Al-Ashqar.

ArabSat followed its tried and tested process for vendor selection when picking one for this particular need as well.

"We verified our needs and defined the fulfilment of those needs as our project objectives. We created an evaluation criteria covering technical and non-technical points. RFP (containing evaluation criteria) was created by ArabSat and sent to the partners of top WAN optimisation vendors. The proposal fitting the criteria and meeting project objectives was selected," says Al-Ashqar.

Citrix was found to be the solution set that best fit the organisation's specific needs. The firm decided to implement most major Citrix products, including Citrix Presentation Server, NetScaler, WANScaler, Secure Access Gateway, Edge Sight for PS, Edge Sight for endpoints and Tricerat Printing Bundle.

ArabSat started deploying the solutions in March 2008, along with Dar Beta reseller partners of Citrix in KSA, and finished deployment of the entire solution set within six months.

"We had to replace Cisco 2600 series routers with Cisco 2800 series in all three major sites for the deployment. We faced a few minor issues during the implementation. This included some problems with operations of Outlook as well as the lack of adequate traffic discovery and reporting features in WANScaler," says Al-Ashqar.

Oracle ERP applications and MS Outlook are the major applications published through Citrix Presentation Server in the headquarters for users in Dirab and Tunisia. Satellite applications on the Presentation Server in Dirab have also been published for the engineering or operation sections working in Riyadh. Three WANScaler boxes have been implemented at all three major sites in the Edge network.

One NetScaler box has been implemented at headquarters with a view to have web applications delivered through it. One access gateway has been deployed in the edge network at Riyadh and provides SSL VPN to the mobile users of ArabSat along with more granular access control to the administrators. Edge Sight for PS and Endpoint give insight into the usage patterns of applications published on Presentation Server from the end user's perspective. These solutions, along with a separate remote monitoring and management solution that the company uses, has seen ArabSat's IT department successfully achieve its requirements."Some of the issues we faced initially included slowness in accessing centralised IT applications, no means of secure or easy access, too much data clogging the network, problems of IT administration at the remote earth stations, issues with web apps acceleration and load balancing. Most of these issues were addressed or completely solved by the Citrix solutions," explains Al-Ashqar.

He adds, "The Citrix set of products brought along increased employee productivity, time and money savings, savings in bandwidth, reduced IT management costs, centralised project information and end-user satisfaction. It has given us both indirect and direct cost savings. A rough estimate shows what would earlier take days now takes minutes to do. This has enabled ArabSat to realise return on investment within three to six months of the implementation." No end to the road

ArabSat follows a strategic plan for its IT initiatives. Though budgets are assigned on an annual basis, Al-Ashqar explains that the crucial five year plan is changed and updated every year, such that there is always a five year plan to work towards.

Driven by this, the IT team at ArabSat deployed a lot more than just Citrix last year.

"CRM, as a part of the Oracle project, was a huge implementation. We are also in the process of implementing a security project. We call this the 360 degree security project, which covers something like 21 technologies in it. Some of these technologies are already implemented and some we are expecting to finish within three months," says Al-Ashqar.

In 2009, ArabSat has plans to upgrade its storage solutions.

"We have already selected NetApp as the storage vendor and Veritas as our back-up partner. These will replace our existing storage, which has become insufficient to support the growing needs of the organisation," says Al-Ashqar.

With its evolving five-year plan, there is no doubt that the IT team will continue to aid and support the business as it expands and grows its fleet of satellites, as well as its current and future base of employees and clients.

Infrastructure at ArabSatCore switches: Nortel

Edge switches: Nortel

Routers: Cisco

Firewalls: Juniper , McAfee HIPS, IRON Mail , TippingPoint

Voice systems: Nortel

Servers: HP & Sun

WAN optimization: Citrix

Network operating systems: Linux & Windows

Remote access: Citrix SSL VPN, Juniper, Citrix Access Gateway

Network management systems: EMC SMARTS, EMC Voyence

Storage: NetApp , Tandberg and Symantec

Backup: Symantec , Neverfail and Acronis

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