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Sun 17 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Unsung heroes

Infrastructure takes on a whole new meaning at Al Ain's UAE University, which encompasses more than 15,000 users and campuses scattered all over the city. IT director Manmohan Singh explains how he's stayed on top of the challenge - while building one of the most progressive IT departments in the region.

Infrastructure takes on a whole new meaning at Al Ain's UAE University, which encompasses more than 15,000 users and campuses scattered all over the city. IT director Manmohan Singh explains how he's stayed on top of the challenge - while building one of the most progressive IT departments in the region.

How critical is the role of the director of IT at UAE University?

I administer all the servers in the university, both Windows and Unix. I also have the security of the whole infrastructure of the university under me as well and most importantly, I am responsible for the complete network and the telecommunications. In essence, I supervise the complete nervous system of the university.

I came here from Singapore, which is very fast paced in comparison to the UAE. But rather than adjusting to the pace here, I’ve made the teams adjust to my pace. Why do we need to do things fast? If you go slowly, you will not accomplish as much as you intend.

I came here from Singapore, which is very fast-paced in comparison to the UAE. But rather than adjusting to the pace here, I've made the teams adjust to my pace. Why do we need to do things fast? If you go slowly, you will not accomplish as much as you intend. I learnt a motto in the military - ‘maximum effort, minimum comfort'. We do the opposite, by working smart, not hard.

The university seems to be continuously updating its core infrastructure. How do you work with vendors to ensure that the projects are successful?

In Singapore, I learnt what I would describe as the right way of doing things, which I'm trying to introduce here. When we buy products, we do a strict evaluation process. We contact the resellers and tell them we are interested, and would like to know what is available.

I always tell resellers: "You are my partner in crime. Whatever I'm going to suggest, you should know if it's good or bad and advise me accordingly. Don't sell me something just for the sake of selling."

The next ownership falls upon the person who's actually evaluating it. We search on the internet and get in touch with all the product's references to get their feedback. I also like to check with Gartner's report, although the magic quadrant is a bit misleading when it comes to new companies and new products, because they are not on the scale yet.

Do you often choose to work with new companies and products rather than established vendors?

There are a couple of new companies with new products that are marvellous, because they have integrated all the best qualities from the available products, so sometimes we need to give those guys a chance.

If you are the first in market to use a product, what you need to do is a very thorough, detailed analysis. Since I came here, I've been introducing this concept to all my team leaders. I've told them I will not do anything until they do a proof of concept. In the proof of concept timeframe, we'll know the product inside out - what its limitations and requirements are.

Is it difficult to get support in Al Ain?

It was initially difficult. But a lot of vendors are eager to do business with the university. One reseller has even located an engineer for us in Al Ain. We actually insisted on it as part of the contract, because the particular server under maintenance was a critical server.

If it was just a matter of powering up a server, we could handle it. But if it's a hardware issue, then it's difficult, because we can't open up certain servers under warranty to replace hardware.

You have a reputation for taking a long time to evaluate products - but you equally have a reputation for living on the bleeding edge. How do you balance being conservative and constantly wanting to deploy the latest technology?

What I've always believed is that technology is just a tool - it's the people that make the difference. At the same time, we don't want to be too far behind the latest technologies.

As my team evolves, what I have also done is group all my team leaders together with myself and we form something like a ‘think tank', which meets every week on Wednesday. After we finish the agenda on the current projects, we can brainstorm the things we may require in the future. It becomes a free-for-all session where the team leaders throw mud at each other and afterwards, work on solutions.

I will say that no idea is a bad idea - it's just a matter of timing. If you have an idea at the right time, it's a saleable idea. I will always listen to any proposals - my office door is always open.
Is it difficult to attract the right calibre of people in this region, especially with small, tight-knit teams like yours?

We try to hire the best because that makes our lives a bit easier. At the same time, what we sometimes do is, rather than hiring, we look at the existing staff that we have and give them the challenge, asking: "Are you willing to take up this next position?"

I tell the network engineers – keep your network infrastructure simple. When you make it too complex, troubleshooting’s a problem, and keeping it simple allows you to add complexity later.

What I also try to do as much as possible is localisation. It's also the incentive of the main government - to have Emiratis taking over some areas. As a foreigner, I've always believed that ownership belongs to the people themselves

I think it's a cycle - Emiratis will eventually come in and manage their own systems, then seek further systems from others who will advise them what to do. It's a win-win situation for everyone.

The university has a number of major core infrastructure projects underway, but attracts little in the way of publicity. Why do you favour this approach?

Our main idea is that we would like to be the unsung heroes. We don't want to make a commotion.

I noticed that when people showcase projects to the press, they end up doing it purely to look good. But if we do things for the students, we want that to be our driving motivation, not publication or press.

Our focus is to complete the implementation first and learn all the lessons that we can. Then when you eventually publish, you can forewarn people about the problems you encountered, which is a better time to publish than in the middle when you wouldn't want to admit to any ongoing problems.

How do you convey the importance of IT infrastructure to the non-technical people in your upper management?

One of the toughest things we face is actually being technical ourselves. One of the things I do to convey ideas is very simple - I draw diagrams, simple boxes and lines, and people then understand what we are doing.

It's also important to provide a kind of legend when using technical terms. If you tell someone what a terabyte is they won't understand - but if you explain that storage space is measured in megabytes, gigabytes and terabytes, they get the picture.

I tell my network engineers the same thing - keep your network infrastructure simple. When you make it too complex, then troubleshooting's a problem.
Keeping it simple allows you to add complexity later.
With a number of campuses to administer, are you concerned that some things can escape your attention?

That was my initial worry when I first came. I tell my engineers when I am not able to visualise a problem, to take pictures with their camera phones and let me see it that way. That helps, because sometimes I am busy with meetings and don't have time to actually go to the site. But I do visit the site when I have time.

What innovations do you have planned for the future?

Up next for us is implementing a big buzzword - Network Admission Control (NAC). But to implement it, you must ensure your switches support a certain standard, 802.1x and so on.

We have close to 1000 switches and 11 different brands of networking items. I need to get rid of obsolete switches and buy new ones, increasing costs. In the course of this project, we actually got people in from different areas. The networking section gave us their concerns. We asked people from the server: "How will you manage access to the servers?"

We said, "Let's make it a point whereby we need to understand, what kind of control you want to restrict." This was a key point when we talked to vendors.

I want to do NAC with minimum changes to my network. I want things to be injected without changing anything on my switches. That was the challenge we imposed on all the guys providing the solution.

The other condition was that it must be implemented in the shortest possible time - that is our second elimination criteria.

We know what our problems are in the network area - and we have made this a condition that vendors have to comply with.

How do students factor into your decision making process?

I'm a military man - I like to go out into the field, visit the campus sites and ask students for their opinion. I also explain the various technical points to non-IT students, when they ask me about the network.

We normally get feedback from the students, reach out to the students, through our customer service centre, which co-ordinates with other unit co-ordinators. Occasionally, I hold joint meetings where I tell the co-ordinators what I have in mind for the network and request that surveys be done to let me know what people think about it.

My main satisfaction is when I see the students and faculty happy. The faculty's main objective is to deliver good education through proper means, and if that means is working, they are happy. If students get the education they need while keeping abreast of the latest technology, they will be happy.

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