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Tue 6 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Connection central

Abu-Dhabi based Universal Group forms new network links to improve branch connectivity and increase operational efficiency.

Abu-Dhabi based Universal Group forms new network links to improve branch connectivity and increase operational efficiency.

The Universal Group is a long standing member of the business community of the UAE.

Formed in 1973, the group has grown over the years to become a diversified entity, bringing together various businesses and operations under its wing.

As the group enjoyed fast growth, tapping into the economic boom time of the country, the information technology team has changed and morphed to provide it with the relevant support needed to remain stable.

"The central role of the IT team at Universal Group is to ensure stability, reliability and security of our infrastructure and technology operations. We understand that and continue to do our best to contribute to the business," says Mahgoub Mubarak, the IT manager of the group.

The central role of the IT team at Universal Group is to ensure stability, reliability and security of our infrastructure and technology operations. We understand that and continue to do our best to contribute to the business.

With hundreds of employees spread across the width and breadth of the UAE, this is easier said than done. Initially the group started off with legacy systems that were built on the Unix platform with dumb terminals.

"As we grew, these systems proved to be a big challenge for the group. It became a very old system and there came a point when we could not find relevant developers to add, change or customise elements of the system. At this point, around six or seven years ago, we decided to change the infrastructure," says Mubarak.

The group went in for a complete overhaul of the existing infrastructure, replacing the Unix-based system with one built on the Windows platform. The company also brought in new e-mail systems and ISDN connectivity to link to its offices across the UAE.

Over time the group's infrastructure has grown to include application servers, mail servers and proxy servers as appropriate. The company has one primary datacentre at its headquarters in Abu Dhabi, where all the crucial applications are centralised for access by the branches.

More recently the company implemented an ERP solution to back its processes and provide operational efficiency. However, the most recent and significant change for the Universal Group was the shift from ISDN to VPN links.

"For the last so many years, we have been using a 128KB/sec ISDN connection to link our branches across the country. But as we have grown, we found that this was increasingly problem-oriented and inadequate for our requirements," says Mubarak.

Since the ISDN connection provided relatively low speeds, it was creating problems at sites where information delivery was significantly slowed. Generating invoices with the ERP and sending them out to the branches was found to be a growing problem. The group also found it impossible to assure internet access at its remote office locations.

"We were paying a high price for the ISDN connectivity as well, and this did not make sense, especially if we wanted to scale. Moreover, with multiple lines, the complexity of the work involved with ISDN was not attractive. We wanted to do away with all of this with our new investments," says Mubarak.

Considering all its pros and cons, Universal Group decided that it was time for them to shift to VPN connectivity.

Choice and deployment

Once having decided on a VPN, the group's IT team began scouting for the best provider of the solutions.

"Our usual process for the selection of any technology system is that we send out for RFPs to vendors and system integrators. From replies that come in we choose systems based on the capability of the solution, how well it fits into our existing infrastructure and meets our requirements, and the relative cost.

We also look for references for the solution, and do research of our own to ascertain that any particular solution is the right one for the job at hand," says Mubarak.

This was the same process followed for choosing the VPN solutions. After a closely fought competition, the group selected the solution set recommended by Emirates Computers.

"Emirates Computers has been working with the Universal Group for several years. We have a long term relationship with them. They know our infrastructure very well, are very familiar with the environment, and therefore, could provide the ideal solution.

Moreover, of the RFPs that came in, their recommendation proved to be the best. Their proposal involved the least disruption to our service provision, and did not necessitate much of an equipment overhaul," says Universal's Mubarak.The decision and the deployment was done in the last months of 2006. The project involved installing Cisco's products and solutions, including Cisco's ASA (Adaptive Security Appliance) Firewall.

SSL encryption was used where the VPN was hosted, and Cisco 877 ADSL security routers were installed for remote sites and branches. These routers are dedicated to the DSL connection provided by Etisalat. The entire VPN went live in 2007.

"We did an initial pilot test at one of our sites to remove basic glitches and make sure that this was exactly what we needed. During this period, we ran both VPN and retained the original ISDN connection at the location, to compare pros and cons, and ensure that everything was working smoothly," says Mubarak.

The deployment took around three months time, and according to Mubarak, the group kept its ISDN connection for two months after the VPN went live, in order to have a back-up for connectivity in case anything should go wrong. By early 2007, all the sites were connected via VPN.

"We brought in a leased line from Etisalat initially at 256KB/sec, which was later increased to 1MB. This involved a cost but it was a good solution for us and has increased our connectivity. With the VPN we were able to provide 512KB/sec speeds to most of our locations and upto 2MB of connectivity speeds at some of the bigger locations that needed such speeds. We were also able to bring internet to remote locations," points out Mubarak.

Following the VPN implementation, the Universal Group added to its server capacity to handle the increasing load, ensure consistent connectivity and enable better movement of data between the centralised applications and the branches.

Team and group

The four-member IT team of the group, which was originally shared among the entire set of companies, was moved to become a part of the firm's Universal Technical company in April 2007. The move was part of a conscious measure by the management to add value to existing services.

"With the move, we began operating with the idea of becoming a profit centre. Now, we serve the companies of the group, just as if we were another IT service provider. We also offer services and our expertise to companies outside the group. In this way, we are able to bring in a steady revenue, and have been able to transform from a cost centre to a profit centre," says Mubarak.

According to him, the company calculates its services for each user of a particular application. For example, it works out the cost of an ERP user for a year, and then multiplies this with the number of employees from each company of the group that uses the ERP system. This amount is charged to the firm, and in this way, the IT team is at a ‘breakeven point' now.

Universal Group companiesUniversal Electrical Equipment Est.

Universal Est. For Trading Agencies

Universal General Transport Est.

Universal Real Estate

Universal Rent A Car (EUROPCAR)

Universal Service Centre

Universal Technical L.L.C.

Universal Trading Company

Universal Voltas L.L.C.

Universal Weathermaker Factory L.L.C

According to Mubarak, the IT team is also gearing up to add more external clients to its customer portfolio.

"We are looking for more clients certainly. We are applying for tenders in Abu Dhabi, and depending on projects internally and externally, we might look to expand our staff base," he says.

The team is also involved in dealership agreements currently with companies like Stratus Technologies, DSM computers, Belarc and Aaxeon, and is looking to add to its dealership base.

All of this is being done as additional work along with the routine tasks that are performed for the group internally.

"For the next year, we are looking at setting up a proper, professional disaster recovery site for the group. We currently have one server dedicated for back-up and disaster recovery at the headquarters, but this might not be sufficient going forward. This is going to be one of our major projects," states Mubarak.

The team will also be involved in the move of one of the group's company branches from one location to another in Abu Dhabi. For this, the IT team will have to lay out the entire infrastructure from cabling to applications at the new, bigger location. Apart from this, an essential upgrade of the existing ERP is also on the cards for 2009.

Budgets for IT are decided by the executive manager of Universal Technical, in consultation with the CEO and the IT team. Money is allocated based on the requirements, the projects on hand, the ones that will be required and various other considerations.

"We are well aware of the importance of our function for a group as wide-ranging and fast-growing as Universal. We have always worked with the aim of forming a solid foundation on which the group can reach new heights. Our work in the new year will just carry that aim forward," concludes Mubarak.

CLARIFICATION: The pointers on the map image used in this feature have been included only for illustrative purposes, and does not necessarily indicate a branch, remote location or office of the Universal Group and/or its companies.

Customer services• IT infrastructure setup

• Systems re-engineering/optimisation

• Networks (wireless and cable) administration

• IT maintenance contracts

• Database/application development

• Data storage

• Disaster recovery

• Security/data protection

• Telecommunications

• Consultancy on IT and telecommunication

• Training

• Building management

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