Grooming in excellence

Von Nilay Syam

According to IDC, the regional technology market is expected to grow from US$6.9 billion in 2003 to $13.4 billion by 2008. The market for IT training and education services in the UAE alone reached a value of $23.19 million in 2004, a solid growth rate of 13 percent year-on-year, while future projections indicate, the best is yet come. A key indicator of this accelerating trend is the number of competency/solution centers that have been established in the region. "The Middle East IT market is among the fastest growing in the world, as more attention is given to specialized technologies, skill enhancement and laying down best practices which others can emulate," says Bashar Kilani, Manager IBM Software Business, Middle East, Egypt and Pakistan. "Technical education and awareness is the need of the day for the market to mature further, and in this junction centers of excellence and standards play a very important role," he adds. Competency centers provide the platform where customers could obtain in-depth technical know-how, test, benchmark, optimize and validate variant technologies and products. Evaluate the solution architecture and try specific scenarios before signing on the dotted line. "With more competition across the regional IT industry, customers have more choice, and want to make sure that the technology they deploy actually fits their business needs," says Kamran Hussain, VP Sales and Marketing, Tech Access.

Making the case

Test, validate and optimize. The logic holds true in the case of competency labs and the services they offer. Apart from providing a unique collaborative working environment where sales, consulting, divisions, and partners can work together with the customer to validate the solution in a professional proof-of-concept environment, the labs also offer a host of other services. Technology briefings including conferences, vertical seminars, best practice libraries and managed services are some of the few valuable services that are offered to the industry. "The idea is to give the customers a complete real time view of the technologies and give them the extra help in order to take critical decisions," says Maria Medvedeva, Director, technology services CA Arab countries. "Organizations from different segments are becoming more mature (moving from reactive to proactive stage) in their evaluation processes and this is where solutions centers come in and bridge the vital gap with their expertise and experiences," she adds.

The process of engaging the customer is the first important step in the whole scheme. A customer will elucidate his specific business needs, and might ask trained consultants to evaluate their business processes and identify areas for improvement, and build a prototype solution, or validate a new one. It is extremely crucial to understand the customer requirement. The process includes a project evaluation and test plan proposal, which is then agreed upon by all the participants. This plan includes a technical description of the configuration to be tested, the simulation tools required and the roles of all participants. The proof-of-concept experts will then prototype a business solution matched with those specifications, and provide a working demonstration. The solution center provides for an intense session of communication each step of the way, so that the customer is kept in loop always. There are regular technical checkpoints, including briefings and project reviews. A proof of concept report is then compiled which contains all technical recommendations based on results and data analysis as well as solution validation documents.

What they say

The trend of competency/solution labs is fuelled by a combination of technical and business imperatives. The technical imperative is that customers can experience a new technology before it becomes widely available, thereby securing a key advantage in embracing it or reacting to it quickly. Businesses can address their objectives in terms of process optimization, improved workflow and ultimately return on investments (ROI). Customers who approach such centers come from different verticals including, CIOs and IT mangers from large enterprise like telecom, banking, oil and gas. In addition, regional governments who are in the processes of implementing e-Government initiatives approach specialized competency labs catering to that particular process. "Customers are generally from large enterprises and government departments with large and comprehensive technology requirements," says Tarek G El Shahawy, Technology Solutions and Sales Consulting Manager, Oracle Middle East. "These are serious and complex ventures where it becomes necessary to try, test and even customize the products before going for large scale deployment," he adds. Some might be just starting up their company, or investing in a significant technology platform for the first time, or operating the same system for a number of years, and wish to update their entire system with brand-new technology.

When it comes to approaching a competency center each client will have his unique scenario and expectations in mind. They all come with the intention of how to best harness technology to business. Despite their different wants and problems and intricate complexities, the requirements can be watered down to few basic ones. "We have hosted customers for all of our key offerings, but mainly briefings, architectural design sessions and proof of concepts," says Haider Salloum, Marketing Manager, Microsoft South Gulf. "The customers that have used our facilities usually have an existing relationship with Microsoft, and a proof of concept would be carried out as part of the normal evaluation cycle when he is looking for a solution," he adds. They want to make sure the hardware investment they are about to make runs their application well, "that is fast, reliable and accurate and also conduct benchmark with real data sets to achieving the best price performance factor, according to Ramzi Abdulbaki, Business Development Manager, Middle East, Turkey and Africa, Intel.

Managed security services is a trend that is rapidly becoming popular among enterprises. Customers usually looking for such services come to the centers for security assessments, penetration and related tasks. Network environments are simulated and threat attacks carried out to check the resilience of the security mechanisms and firewalls. Tarek from Oracle laid down the basic operations of such centers as demos and proof-of-concepts, workshops around architecture and infrastructure and simulating specific customer scenarios. " The biggest advantage of competency center is that it provides a secure platform to experiment with new techniques without risking critical data or code," says Juggie Govender, Education Business Manager Middle East, HP. " They also gain access to the current versions of reference materials," he adds. The above viewpoints can be best put in the words of Hussain from Tech Access. "Simplified understanding, getting tailored solutions and implementation," he says. Skill and knowledge enhancement is the ultimate goal. As demands for expertise increase in the market such centers play an important role in laying down best practices and arm IT managers with the necessary tools to survive in a highly competitive environment said IBM"s Kilani.

Building on technology

The Middle East has witnessed a serious commitment towards technology innovation with the establishment of number of state of the art solutions centers.

The Intel Energy Competency Center (ECC) located in Abu Dhabi is dedicated to testing and optimizing Intel-based hardware and software solutions for oil and gas exploration and production. The ECC provides solution development assistance and technical knowledge transfer services for petroleum geophysicists, geologists, and reservoir engineers involved in locating and lifting hydrocarbons.

"At Intel we have software engineers working closely with software vendors to help customers improve performance using Intel tools and compiler," says Intel"s Abdulbaki. "The ECC brings key customers to the lab for testing and evaluation of Intel based hardware and when necessary it coordinates visits with experts who assist customers and independent service vendors (ISVs) in the porting and tuning of application. Services such as application tuning, benchmarking, and scalabilities test even code optimization and re-writes usually takes place in centers like these," he adds.

Competency labs also form a vital platform for training and educating staff on specific kinds of technologies. Hewlett Packard"s (HP) NonStop training center offers instructor-led training courses, self-study training (SST), and CBT courses. The HP Education Services (HPES) helps customers use information technology to transform their business and enable measurable business value from their IT investments. This is achieved by attending the training centers and interacting with professional, experienced instructors.

Computer Associates (CA) has three competency centers based in Riyadh, Beirut and Dubai. The centers showcase and test CA solutions deployed on IBM, Microsoft, Unix and Linux operating systems. It manages live, mission-critical applications on the industry leading databases CA"s Ingres, Oracle, MS SQL, and Peoplesoft. The support center in Beirut is equipped with a technical lab that enables CA"s in-house support to reproduce the customer"s environment prior to the inquiry and resolve the issue. The lab also helps the support staff in Lebanon to gain additional expertise by re-creating the experiences that the customer goes through.

IBM has been involved actively in e-Government initiatives in Bahrain. The Bahrain solution center is linked to a network of IBM e-government centers worldwide and feature a number of open standard solutions that enable the roll-out of e-government projects and services, including e-Government cross agency collaboration, portal solutions, business controls and reporting as well as integrated workflow. Oracle has established a Technology Competency Center in Jordan with major focus on technology infrastructure. The company"s plan is to have sufficient number of specialized highly skilled consultant in all technology solutions that are offered like the Oracle Fusion Middleware, SOA, security and identity management and integration. Oracle sad that they are building a showcase infrastructure that will give customers the chance to see the all the technology products working together in real life scenarios.

The Sun/Tech Access iForce center gives customers the chance to "test before they invest". Sun"s global network of iForce centers, provide a variety of services, such as sizing, tuning, brainstorming and pilot programs -- everything the client needs to build an optimal technology platform. Trained consultants are provided to evaluate a customer"s business processes and identify areas for improvement, and build a prototype business solution according to a customer"s particular needs. Microsoft is not far behind its counterparts. The solutions provider opened the Microsoft Technology Center (MTC) in Dubai to offer enterprise customers the facilities and tools they need to optimize their IT investment. MTC provides strategy briefings, architectural design sessions and proof of concept workshops, to validate and test solutions. The center includes an envisioning room, a briefing room and two proof-of-concept rooms.

Adding value to knowledge

The knowledge and experience gathered from such intensive engagements with different kinds of clients and their varied requirements has brought these competency centers into an unique position to garner its years of expertise, and venture into the ambit of providing valuable consultancy services. Drawing from the vast pool of data and information, the solution centers have started to provide expert advise and consultancy to their customers, as an added incentive to their overall services. Many end-users are not experts in new technology, and consultants are provided to walk them through it. Some customers want to know exactly how a new piece of software will help them in their market, and the consulting team is crucial in providing real, business-specific analysis. "After customers are confident to go forward with critical technology projects, they need help to architect the solution, plan for it and start the implementation," says Shahawy from Oracle. In some centers consulting divisions oversee operations and ensure infrastructure and software are up and running through test and production areas. Specialized centers also offer expert education consultancy to assist customers in identifying what are their training needs. "Consultancy has emerged as a crucial element in the whole matrix. A consultant would be able to assess the particular needs of a customer and accordingly configures the environment or the solutions platform," says CA"s Medvedeva.

The road ahead

Keeping pace with the global upsurge of technology adoption in all its facets, enterprises in the Middle East no longer take things at face value and demand stringent scrutiny of solutions, before they take it on board. They want a measurable business value from their IT investments. This is the principal catalyst, according to industry experts, which will see competency centers further evolving in their operations to play a much more significant role, inculcating skills and spreading knowledge in the industry. "There is a rising trend of technology commitment in the region and this will continue unabated in the coming years, as enterprises move ahead in their technological," says IBM"s Kilani. The argument behind the presence of such innovation platforms is strategic as well as business specific. As more and more companies are established the choices with which customers are faced will become harder and harder -- how do I choose a wireless network? What are the key differentiators when selecting a security solution? In this junction competency centers will be vital in helping customers make these choices, putting together bespoke, integrated solutions based on industry-specific business needs.