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Sun 14 Mar 2010 04:00 AM

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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.

Central command
KRISHNAN: We internally were challenged with a single SLA, whereas our vendors had different SLAs.
Central command
MCN’s offices stretch from Egypt on the West to Dubai on the East.

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.

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.

The budget, and how to cut itMCN'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.

"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.

Fortunately for MCN, the agency has a technology division solely dedicated to the task of evaluating new products and services. After being pressed into service, the division came up with a number of possible options, including Postini working with Enterprise Vault, Message Labs, IronPort,  and of course, Mimecast Networks.

The selection process proved to be highly rigorous, involving proof-of-concepts and extensive investigation of previous references. In the case of Mimecast, the company supplied three past customers which had invested in similar systems, including an investment bank in DIFC and international law firm Taylor Wessing.

But the clincher, says Krishnan, was a visit from the firm's technical director, who explained a number of Mimecast's more esoteric options including "100%" SLAs and the 10-year archiving plan.

"What they mean by 100% SLA is that if one of their datacentres black out, there is a real datacentre on another country which is live and has the same set of e-mails. The database is shifted between them, so we don't have to wait for a datacentre to come back online before we can send and receive our e-mails," he clarifies.

With a system of this magnitude, cost is always an issue. With the earlier Apollo system, the cost of e-mail handing was $35-$40 per user, versus about $50 in MCN's current agreement with Mimecast. Despite the increase in price, Krishnan believes that it's justified.

"What we do have in addition is an improved SLA and a 10-year e-mail archiving system, providing for business continuity, a feature that we never used to have before. In effect, we're becoming more efficient and more reliable. It is approximately $55,000 in fees per year, versus the $40,000 we spent on the Apollo system. We have more features coming in for that additional $10,000 that we're paying," he adds.

Before the contracts could be finalised, they needed to go through a period of due diligence, something's that quite rare in the region. Krishnan also sought the help of an external consultant to advise on the project.

"We had one helping us out from Canada, giving us an eyeball on contracts and such. We had a team of about three people from my office conducting the technical evaluation of the product. The contract evaluation was also done by myself and the external consultant and it has been vetted by the CIO, who has signed off on it," he states.

The final decision to go with Mimecast was taken in early August, and the system went live in the last week of September, pegging the implementation period at just under two months in total. Even though Krishnan and his team were working on completing a domain a week, he says there were never any risks to system integrity.

"Our systems were in parallel so we always had a plan B on the system front itself and on the implementation front. What we did as an implementation is to start off with our smallest domain and then evaluated the whole system on a domain that was dormant. With that confidence, we moved on and our last implementation was the biggest, in which we brought over 1000 users," he confirms.

Issues were far and between during the implementation, although Krishnan says mobile connectivity did pose a few challenges: "We did face an issue where in some of our countries, BlackBerry has two services - BES and BIS. In some countries, they were using a BIS server system which is basically dependent on the internet service provider and so on. On that system, it is mandatory to have a POP connection to the server so that the BIS system can actually pull in the e-mails and deliver it to the Blackberries. We had a problem there and had downtime of two days until we figured out a way to resolve that."

Post-implementation, he says, the improvements to efficiency from having a centralised e-mail system are already becoming apparent, particularly in terms of new monitoring capabilities.

"We have four areas of services and each of those offices used to handle their own infrastructure by themselves. There was little we could do on the monitoring front, on being able to provide a central SLA to management here. Having centralised most of that, we can easily now provide the same standard to all the various offices. It cuts down on the number of specialist requirements in the region. Now all I need to have is one central specialist in the central office who can handle level one staff across all the other offices. Earlier I would need to have expensive manpower in those offices," he says.

However, that doesn't mean that the staff have simply been laid off - the number of support staff is still the same. Nevertheless, he adds, the requirements and responsibilities have changed. And there is definitely a nice bonus conferred from not having to outsource support activities in a remote office.

"Having shed this work to the central office, they can concentrate more on their level one responsibilities than being bothered with other things.  In most cases we are on alert and know about the situation much faster than those local offices do. We are normally the first ones to alert them to a problem. Some of the offices never had the core technical competencies and used to rely on expensive third party service providers for support and maintenance. Now they fall back on us and we provide the support at no or cheaper cost," he declares.

Has the introduction of the Mimecast system dramatically changed the user experience? As far as most employees are concerned, no since they send and receive their e-mail in the same fashion. But some, Krishan says, have noticed a difference.

And behind the scenes, it's made his life a whole lot easier: "I know for a fact that they have said that it's become more efficient. I've had a bunch of users complain early on that there were delays happening. We used to have false positives - e-mails going into the spam box and so on. Now with changes to the new Mimecast system, I must say that those false positives have completely reduced. E-mail will not trigger a spam warning as much as it used to."

"With MimeCast it's completely transparent and definitely reduced the workload of our administrators. They are looking forward at other projects now. The number of calls I receive now due to a server outage is one in every 300 or so," he ends.

The cloud computing experienceFor many, cloud computing is still a very new concept in the region. As one of the first high-profile companies to invest in the technology, MCN's Krishnan offers his thoughts on the experience and plans for future upgrades to infrastructure.

"We've done one experimental project and one actual live project. So far it is looking good. We're fairly new into the concept and we've evaluated it a little bit. I personally see that in the next ten years, the world should actually begin to move into the cloud datacentre concept," he believes.

"You can see it happening already - datacentres are being outsourced and consolidated. All our datacentres are in-house at the moment. I would say that if it does lower the total cost of ownership in any of these areas and it can provide the same level of service reliability as it does in-house, then obviously I would see more and more companies gearing up to move towards the enterprise cloud," ends Krishnan.