By Greg Wilson
Information technology hasn’t traditionally played a proactive role within many construction companies. However, Al Habtoor Engineering Enterprises (HEE) is working on a grand design that will eventually transform its IT department into a profit centre.
HEE constructs flexible IT infrastructure|~||~||~|Information technology hasn’t traditionally played a proactive role within many construction companies. However, Al Habtoor Engineering Enterprises (HEE) is working on a grand design that will eventually transform its IT department into a profit centre. The engineering company is currently in the initial phase of a project to construct a flexible infrastructure to automate the flow of information throughout its multiple site organisation, bringing order to its paper intensive business processes and place HEE in a strong position to begin sharing project data with business partners.“In construction the core business is obviously making buildings… IT is something that the company has just spent money on,” says Hassib El Assaad, HEE’s IT manager. But the thinking has now changed within Al Habtoor, he adds. “[We’re] shifting IT from a cost to a profit centre. We’re creating and managing a system that can run, that will capture the knowledge and expertise of the people in the company,” says El Assaad.The vision of HEE’s fledgling IT department stretches as far as eventually offering professional services to its business partners. However, the initial focus of the eight month drive has been the construction of a flexible wide area network (WAN), to connect project sites to the company’s two main offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.Due to the project-orientated nature of HEE’s business, the company needed a flexible network architecture that could accommodate temporary local area networks (LANs) being deployed on construction sites — no matter how remote the site. “Whatever technology we are installing today [the network] needs to ensure visibility with the head office,” says El Assaad. “We started to put [LANs] at the different sites. But at the same time we have to think what happens in two years when the site is finished and we need to disassemble and move elsewhere. Either I am going to pay to rebuild on the next site or reuse whatever I have. We are always thinking what technology we can adopt to allow [us] flexibility and mobility,” explains HEE’s IT manager.Working with local Cisco partner, Computer Network Services (CNS), the engineering company has hooked 300 users to its WAN over the last seven months, as the company connects existing standalone PCs and isolated LANs. The remote LANs are all connecting to a couple of Cisco 3620 routers via ISDN connections wherever possible. The everyday operational information is then routed back to HEE’s servers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “We have two distributed data centres,” explains El Assaad. “This helps for back-up purposes, synchronisation, load balancing and uptime. [Machines] can go down regardless of how much you spend having a failsafe system, [but we] cannot afford what’s going on [in Dubai], to stop the users around Abu Dhabi. We are creating a balance between the two operations,” he adds.As HEE’s business model begins to focus on projects outside its Dubai base, the network is expected to scale dramatically. El Assaad predicts HEE will add another 100 users in the coming months and extend its information sharing capabilities with other business partners via the Web. “We’re trying to educate [construction] consultants that they need to [invest] more in IT. If they need to see our work and monitor us they can do it better if they have access to our systems over the Web. We’re trying to give them more visibility [to our systems],” explains El Assaad.HEE’s engineering department is already offering training to construction consultants as part of its move towards a profit centre.With the WAN in place the IT department is taking steps to tighten network security, prior to installing an enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution. Currently, HEE has a couple of Cisco PIX firewalls protecting its main data centres, however, “whatever we’re doing now relates back to security, particularly as we’re going to start sending more and more critical business information over the Web,” says El Assaad.HEE’s work on ERP is only just beginning. After an assessment of the various ‘big name,’ ERP vendors in the market, the engineering company decided the packages on offer were either too big, too costly or not suited to its needs. Consequently, HEE has decided to leverage on its South African partner to model and develop a system for its needs. “[The partner] has some pretty good systems that we have been using. For example, on the estimation side we have been using a system called CCS. It goes all the way from the initial estimation on a project, to when [we] get the project and start going against that plan… [Then the consultants] see you going against the plan you provided,” comments El Assaad.When developed and deployed, the ERP package will manage areas, such as the administration of labour, payroll, timesheets, allocation of costs, procurement, financials and resource distribution.Running in parallel to the ERP work, the El Assaad’s IT team is also tackling a comprehensive Windows 2000 rollout throughout its organisation. With the majority of the initial implementation already complete, HEE is assessing Collaboration Server and Exchange 2000 to bring a greater degree of work collaboration and structure to the company’s knowledge assets. “We need to capture the skills of the company,” says El Assaad. “A lot of our expertise is on paper but we want to web enable [our data] and learn from it — we’re looking for a way to embed our expertise,” he adds.With the number of employees in the company varying according to the project, the HEE wants to take advantage of the knowledge and experience it has gained during its ‘landmark,’ projects such as the Burj Al Arab. Initially, the engineering company had assessed Web Store in Exchange 2000, but the company is now waiting for the next generation of SQL Server, still in development.”Since we’re going to installed SQL Server for the backend of our ERP, then we will use that to leverage that whole thing,” says El Assaad.||**||