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Thu 21 Nov 2019 07:49 AM

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Dawn of automation for companies in the Gulf is just around the corner

AI offers companies benefits such as cost optimisation, business streamlining and innovation insights, but firms that fail to implement it early enough face losing their competitive edge, according to regional tech experts

Dawn of automation for companies in the Gulf is just around the corner

While today’s AI technology is incredibly advanced, it remains an expensive proposition for most businesses.


Artificial intelligence (AI) is the single most transformative tech evolution of our time. The ramifications of AI could make or break local businesses in the coming years.

Every day, the capabilities of AI and machine learning techniques are exponentially evolving – to the extent where they can automatically and autonomously handle many aspects of business operations.

AI offers companies benefits such as cost optimisation, business streamlining and innovation insights, but firms that fail to implement it early enough face losing their competitive edge.

“I think this heralds an era of autonomy where machines essentially decide and analyse things on our behalf”

While today’s AI technology is incredibly advanced, it remains an expensive proposition for most businesses.

For the near future at least, many companies are choosing to ‘lease’ AI solutions through software-as-a-service (SaaS) cloud platforms, which allow organisations to simply feed in their data and pay for computing resources as they are used.

The current big SaaS players on the market include Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP – all of which are vying for a slice of the region’s digital ambitions.

The public cloud services market in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is projected to grow to $1.9bn (AED7.97bn) by 2020, double what it was in 2016, according to data research firm Statista.

“In the coming years, a growing pool of providers is likely to start offering more tailored applications and services for specific or specialised tasks. This will mean no company will have any excuses left not to use AI,” notes Bernard Marr, futurist and strategic technology advisor to governments and companies.

Across the board, companies in the Middle East are increasingly investing in digital transformation, adopting technologies such as cloud computing and AI to improve efficiency and agility.


Amazon Web Services (AWS) is expanding its global footprint with the opening of the AWS Middle East in Bahrain in July this year

According to Computer Weekly’s IT Priorities survey for the Middle East, nearly three quarters of organisations in the region expect their IT budgets to increase this year as more companies embark on digital transformations. More than half (51 percent) of the organisations surveyed said streamlining operations through internal efficiency and better process management was a driver of digital transformation.

Middle East appetite

In a show of serious intent for the region, US software giant Oracle is set to add four more data centres to the Gulf region within the next 15 months, chairman Larry Ellison announced in San Francisco in September at the company’s annual event, Oracle Openworld.

This February, Oracle – the second largest software company in the world by revenue – opened its first data centre in the Middle East in Abu Dhabi to offer cloud storage to customers across the region.

Rival SAP is the current front-runner in the race with three centres in the region in Dubai, Riyadh and Dammam, which house servers for local cloud computing clients.

“The impact on labour is profound – this is not a hi-fi with slightly better speakers or a tire with a slightly slimmer rim – this is a transformative different technology and organisations need to think hard about it”

Comparatively a smaller player, Alibaba Cloud – cloud computing arm of the Chinese e-commerce giant – opened its first regional data centre in Dubai in 2016.

Microsoft brought online its first data centre regions in the Middle East in June this year, opening one in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Amazon Web Services (AWS) unveiled its first and only data centre in Bahrain in July this year.

For regional enterprises, moving their operations to a cloud hosted by a specialised company, such as Oracle or Microsoft, is proving cheaper than creating their own infrastructure of servers, hardware and security networks. It also brings down the overall cost of ownership.

Oracle’s odyssey

Speaking at Oracle OpenWorld, Ellison laid out his plan for the “world’s first truly autonomous cloud,” a vision that takes the concept behind trends such as self-driving cars and planes and applies it to cloud computing. Ellison explained how the most important benefits from autonomous systems will come from eliminating human errors. In cars, eliminating such errors avoids accidents, he said. In technology, it eliminates common user errors that expose data to hackers.


Microsoft’s cloud data centres are empowering organisations across the wider Gulf region

Ellison, also the chief technology officer  (CTO) of Oracle, focussed on two pillars of the company’s autonomous cloud strategy: its world-first Oracle Autonomous Database and Generation 2 Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. Oracle Autonomous Database leverages machine-learning algorithms to automatically and continuously patch, tune, back up, and upgrade itself without manual intervention, all while the system is running.

“Artificial intelligence, machine learning and autonomous systems are so fundamentally different from what came before, it marks a new generation in computer technology,” he said.

According to Jyoti Lalchandani, group VP and regional MD, Middle East, Turkey and Africa at tech research firm IDC, the concept of Oracle’s automated database is ‘revolutionary’.

He tells Arabian Business: “I think this heralds an era of autonomy where machines essentially decide and analyse things on our behalf.”

“During the evolution of automation, a lot of the activity has been led by humans and supported by machines but we are now moving towards AI-based automation – where the machines analyse and produce insights and the machine acts or executes, not the human,” the tech expert says.

“The autonomous database is not yet established but the impact on our customers’ businesses is profound”

Globally, the autonomous data platform market accounted for $673.87bn in 2018 and is expected to reach $3.53 trillion by 2027, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR)  of 20.2 percent during the forecast period.

Oracle itself currently has around 700 live cloud customers in the MEA region, including Emaar Group, Fine Hygiene Holding, Landmark Group and DP World.

Its autonomous database essentially offers database-as-a-service on the cloud, says Lalchandani.

“What Oracle basically does is use advanced AI and machine learning to automate certain elements of database management, so that improves performance and reduces costs.”

Lalchandani says the region is moving into an era of autonomy, where a lot of the systems are going to be “preconfigured”.


Oracle founder Larry Ellison plans to build the “world’s first truly autonomous cloud” service

The IDC expert says any regional sector that deals with mass amounts of data – from banking, to retail to education – will need to use AI and machine learning to bring in better levels of performance and reduce costs.

Lalchandani predicts a strong take-up of the autonomous database across the region, particularly from Oracle as it already has a strong dominance in the Middle East marketplace.

“We are going to see a significant uptake of these solutions because they are essentially built on the cloud and with Oracle’s announcement about setting up two data centres, this is really going to drive the take up in the region.”

Data optimisation

Paul Sonderegger, senior data strategist at Oracle, says the digitisation and ‘datafication’ of nearly everything on the planet demands new competitive strategies.


SAP data centres use state-of-the-art technology and security to protect data against breaches

“The vast majority of data in the data economy never goes anywhere – what this means is, most of the value creation in the digital economy from data is happening inside the same company that produces that data,” Sonderegger tells Arabian Business.

The data expert says there is a ‘hidden data economy’ inside large companies. “However, most companies don’t think of it this way and, as a result, this holds back the maximisation of the data they create.”

Sonderegger says the idea behind autonomous data management is to optimise the transaction process for getting data from the point of creation to its many points of use.

“The autonomous database reduces the time and cost it takes for those who demand data – such as analysts and data scientists – to discover the data assets that are available to them and convert them and apply them to applications where they can create value. This is what the automatic database is all about – increasing return on data capital,” the expert says.

A whole new market

Andrew Sutherland, senior vice president (SVP), business development, technology license and systems for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, is charged with taking the new Oracle solution to the Middle Eats market. He admits he has a ‘challenging’ job on his hands.


Marr says no company will have any excuses left not to use technology, including AI

Oracle has traditionally had a healthy base of customers in the region, but the software firm has historically sold to CIOs or IT managers.

With the advent of automated technology that can be used or implemented out-of-the-box by anyone in the business, he’s found himself with a whole new potential customer base.

“The changes around us – and the way we have reorganised ourselves – is very interesting and, frankly, very challenging as well,” he says.

“In Middle East field sales, what has delighted us is the autonomous database has really caught fire in our customer’s minds. The autonomous database is not yet established but the impact on our customers’ businesses is profound – it’s a truly transformative technology. We’re discovering new people that have got jobs we didn’t even know existed which have got huge hunger for data information.”

Transformation challenges

Sutherland says the transformational aspect of the automated database is causing organisations to rethink their costs and organisational structures.


Lalchandani believes the concept of Oracle’s automated database is ‘revolutionary’

“Most businesses have been set up around certain tasks around certain jobs and – being very candid about it – when you’ve got AI involved there is an impact on people’s jobs. Many jobs that were done by database administrators are now being done by the database itself. We’re deep into the AI conversation and the impact that has on people’s jobs and their self worth,” the SVP says.

“The impact on labour is profound – this is not a hi-fi with slightly better speakers or a tire with a slightly slimmer rim – this is a transformative different technology and organisations need to think hard about it.”

IDC’s Lalchandani suggests that one solution for stemming regional AI-led job losses is to strategically ‘upskill’ employees.

“We have a lot of human resource in this region that will now need to reskill. A lot of the manual work will now be automated essentially. That will require training and redevelopment – that’s the only challenge of AI as I see it,” the expert says.


Sonderegger says the digitisation and datafication demands new competitive strategies

Sutherland says the appetite for cloud and automation in the Middle East region is “immense”.

“The Middle East is open to adopting disruptive technology. It is probably more ready than most to accept disruption to structures and roles, which will have its ups and downs. There is a readiness to make that change.”

The SVP views the Gulf region, in particular, as a “melting pot”.

“I see many, many different skills coming from around the world and these people are often focussed very hard on what they are doing and the efficiency of getting that job done,” he says.

“There is a real increase in regional technology sentiment; they want to see us focussing on lowering the cost of computing and increasing security. They like to see solutions that are addressed at enterprises – we are unashamedly an enterprise. For a brand that’s been around a long time, we have reinvented ourselves,” the SVP adds.


Umm Al Qura University goes autonomous

Umm Al Qura University, one of Saudi Arabia’s largest educational institutions, will implement Oracle Autonomous Database to create an integrated digital platform that will help the university deliver seamless and paperless educational services to more than 100,000 students across its 36 colleges in five campuses.

The new implementation will also enable the university to introduce programmes in digital skills across emerging technologies like AI, for students from various disciplines to help prepare the country’s next generation workforce.

“As part of the Vision 2030 initiative, the Government of Saudi Arabia is focussed on developing at least five universities in the country to be featured among the world’s top educational institutions; Umm Al Qura University being one of them”, said Dr Atif Al Hijali, vice dean – E-Services, Umm Al Qura University, Saudi Arabia.

“In 2018, only 40 of our services were online – our aim is for everyone including tutors, researchers and students to complete all tasks from their home or office and come to the university only for in person classes or to write exams. With Oracle Autonomous Database, we will now offer 200 sub-sites with personalised editors and publishers with their own workflows, without any intervention from the IT department,” added Dr Hijali.

With the implementation of Oracle Autonomous Data warehouse, the university will be able to enhance the user experience of automated registration, admissions, administration and many others, especially for the university’s top management.

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