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Von Kavitha Rajasekhar

With the formation of eCompany, Etisalat"s customer facing arm for connectivity based services, the telecom convergence powerhouse is looking to transfer the power of its data center right into the hands of the corporate customers. Naturally, ensuring data protection, business continuity and end-to end security from a single management console, is the crux of its business model.

Having invested in what could clearly be among the best state-of-the art infrastructure powerhouses in this region, eCompany says this market is ready to ride the data center boom. SAME takes you on a special tour of the data center, which houses the telecom major"s complete Internet-based connectivity, data and e-payments infrastructure.

For the enterprise itself, the convergence of business continuity; disaster recovery and sheer computing capacity can all come together only in a data center environment. According to eCompany GM Ahmad Abdulkarim Julfar, the real value lies not in the infrastructure itself but in the company"s business model to help organizations leverage the technology to consolidate and protect their business critical operations.

The data center market as a whole across the Middle East is at an interesting juncture. On the enterprise front, customers across the region are also opening up to outsourced infrastructure management and service delivery, not only to achieve better operational efficiency but to also build business continuity and disaster recovery. Cost effective SAN-based data replication (over IP networks) is also picking up as a service.

"Customers are realizing that buying the best infrastructure is not the end of the road. Disaster recovery remains top of mind, security issues are important and most of all manageability needs to be achieved. When we go to them and say we are willing to take all this on for a fee, there is a clear value proposition for them in this," says Etisalat"s Data Center manager Narayanan Govindarajan.

The eDC also hosts the e-payment infrastructure for Etisalat services as a whole, besides the PKI-based certification backend. "eCompany handles the highest online e-payments transactions in the Middle East. The PKI-based infrastructure is also managed out of the Abu Dhabi center and eCompany is the CA (certification authority for UAE) for digital certificates," says Julfar

It"s all about security

The three main service offerings from eDC continue to focus on hosting, collocation and infrastructure provisioning and NMS (networking monitoring systems infrastructure), which quite literally are about managing and maintaining client infrastructure. The reliance, therefore, on strong connectivity and end-to-end security is of prime importance.

The security infrastructure itself is tightly integrated with the procedures and processes that govern the functioning of the data center itself.

Uptime, everytime

In line with its plans to bring business continuity, disaster recovery and cost effective infrastructure delivery to customers, Etisalat is focused on delivering the power of two to its customers.

In an initiative that began as a simple hosting function is now a full-fledged data replication, remote disaster recovery offering with total redundancy built in for the customer. Today, the Etisalat Data Center (eDC) has two similar infrastructure facilities located across Abu Dhabi and Dubai to offer both primary and secondary site disaster recovery. "While the Abu Dhabi center serves large corporate entities, the Dubai data center is expected to take the services well into the SME segment," says Farooq Hasan, Marketing Manager, eCompany.

eCompany has now undertaken a major expansion program in data center facilities. A third facility has already been added in Dubai, which will be operational with live customers in June 2005.

"Both facilities have exactly the same infrastructure, which means redundancy is built in, connectivity and data replication between centers is available and data could be managed out of either facility. By default the Abu Dhabi center tends to have larger and more government organizations using the services, while Dubai facility services a larger proportion of private sector customers," adds Julfar. Support activities are also carried out for customers across the two locations, offering proximity enabled support for customers.

Data, times two

In line with Business Continuity norms, data replication is becoming important for the region"s enterprises irrespective of their size. The name of the game is all about data value and its protection thereof.

"SAN-based replication clearly offers the customer total data protection, simply because he can be assured of 24/7 uptime for his business. All customer data that is hosted on the SAN is replicated in real-time as well as service data from the main server point of view. Building redundancy has become a key value addition today," says Govindarajan.

The real-time IP based replication is done using EMC Symmetrix infrastructure between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Tape based backup is also offered for customers who require additional backup. "We have a completely automated StorageTek Robotic eTape infrastructure, which can automatically load the tape as per the customer"s request to take specific data backup. The idea is to offer all types of data protection/backup options to organizations," he says.

Safe keeping

If you need just a cabinet, an enclosure or a cage - at eDC this is a growing business too. In spite of having grown its portfolio of services well beyond e-hosting, Julfar says the basic hosting service itself remains a strong line of business and is seeing even floor space emerge as a key selling point to customers. The fact that this service facilitates customers to literally secure their infrastructure, with physical enclosures, 24/7 power back up and monitoring is continuing to be a strong business for both large and small organizations.

"Most large customers and even SMB players say though they might have the capabilities to invest in the infrastructure, securing the infrastructure on a continuous basis with rapidly changing technology and ensuring availability of physical facilities remains a concern. Power availability for one thing is also an additional cost to companies. So hosting as a service remains a strong business case," he says. With a layered offering, eCompany says it can service customers at all levels and at different price points.

The services range from basic rack space renting to server leasing and storage. Security services, bandwidth availability and power redundancy are provided as services for customers across all layers. Customers and site engineers have facilities to undertake upgrades and checks at the hosting site itself.

In terms of additional facilities, large corporate customers are also offered the choice of securing a dedicated area of the floor space for their infrastructure set up.

"The enclosure and the cages option is seeing large corporate and even government customers house their infrastructure with mission critical data in the data center," says Julfar.

A cage for example, is quite literally a cage that secures the infrastructure of a client that is hosted at the data center. An enclosure is literally a closed space, which does not permit a view into the infrastructure from the outside. "Even Etisalat staff unless authorized by the customer is not permitted inside. In fact we are servicing some large government departments in this fashion and we do not even know the nature of the data the infrastructure holds," adds Govindrajan.

Keeping an eye

With infrastructure delivery comes the need for effective system management and monitoring. In this case, with such diverse customer profiles and service layers, eCompany says the thrust will be on enhanced 24/7 customer support, remote handling of infrastructure and security/business continuity.

"Support services at the Etisalat data centers extends to all network components, including servers. Monitoring of links and gateways is also part of the systems management," says Govindarajan.

"Monitoring is perhaps one of the most important components of a data center, simply because it is intrinsic to protecting customer data and information," he adds. At eDC the thrust is now to offer other services to value add the monitoring activities. Metering, for example, is one such service that will facilitate customers to know exactly what volume of their data flows through each month, leading the way for a pay-per-use model.

The data center also runs a full-fledged service desk, from where customer call tickets are managed. " We run a helpdesk (built on HP Openview) that registers customer complaints or requests for service tickets. All servers and network devices are monitored. Even databases can be monitored," says Govindarajan.

Both the Abu Dhabi & Dubai data center carries out all network and security-monitoring activity through its NOC (network operations center).

A SOC (security operations center) for dedicated security monitoring is also in place in both data centers. The data centers offer three levels of customer support with a team of 40 people currently in operations and customer support.

Besides this, Etisalat engineers and customer representatives have all facilities to carry out both maintenance and repairs at the infrastructure site.

The customer police

Customers always remain the absolute test for quality. And at eCompany this is taken seriously, with the business entity having set its eyes on servicing the regional business community. Today, eCompany says the corporate customers from the regional enterprises are better informed about business and continuity issues than ever before.

"If you ask us if customers are easy to convince just because we have such impressive infrastructure, I would say not at all. In fact customers are more conscious than ever before," says Etisalat Senior Engineer Operations Ahmad KM Al Sowaidi.

"Customers are closely auditing service providers infrastructure, issues like power backup are being seen as critical and on the network side, disaster recovery, business continuity and security are top of mind," says Al Sowaidi.

With the customer mindset having changed, eCompany says it can clearly see what began as a simple customer need for infrastructure support, turning the data center business into the center piece for establishing disaster recovery and business continuity best practice among regional enterprises. "The data center is no longer a place where customers want to host a few boxes. It has already started to emerge as the primary and secondary site for business continuity, "adds Hasan.

Ready for an MSSP overdrive

One of the important launches of this year will see eCompany enter new areas of business, one of which is managed services and managed security services (MSS). "New services from eCompany will see us move strongly into total customer and service management for all their infrastructure, security and network needs. The strategy at eCompany is after all about making the delivery of infrastructure power easy for the customer," says Julfar.

Consolidated security management will be a key value that eCompany wants to put into the pot for customers. "The primary service offered will be in the areas of server management, power management, monitoring and security. But the plan is to scale up to manage any process and service that is usually done by a customer, from our location," says Govindarajan.


End-to-end security

Ensuring security at the eDC is about getting IT security to blend in with physical security. The entire facility is linked up with surveillance cameras, which also detect motion. The surveillance tapes are archived for a year.

Card-based access control systems are used across the facility and as an additional security measure, more than door cannot be opened simultaneously into each room. For a more layered security control system, biometrics in the form of iris scanners are also deployed at entry points. The entire facility has also been protected with a gas-based fire suppression system. Besides IT systems monitoring, the hosted servers are also physically protected by enclosing them in boxes, cages and closed enclosures. Engineers on site offer 24/7 customer and technical support.