Data at your fingertips

Data at your fingertips

How do you manage 40 years of paper records which include countless architects' drawings of A0 size (16 times the size of A4)?

How do you manage 40 years of paper records which include countless architects' drawings of A0 size (16 times the size of A4)? To the director of IT at Hong Kong-based AECOM's Asia operations, this is certainly a big challenge. The company's ultimate goal is to digitise its huge volume of paper records to pave the way for the implementation of a document management system (DMS).

AECOM engages in engineering consulting, architectural design, construction management and looks after infrastructure, building development, city planning, as well as environmental management and energy. In the past two years, the consulting firm has experienced substantial growth from 2,500 to 3,200 employees region-wide. One of its monumental projects was the new town planning of Shatin, a project awarded by the Hong Kong government some 25 years ago.

Partnering the business

Christine Cheung, director of IT at AECOM Asia's operations, supervises a 30-strong IT team, which is responsible for IT operations in 15 offices in Asia, including Hong Kong, China (Shenzhen, Shekou, Shanghai, Beijing, Nanchang, Chengdu), Singapore, India and some smaller offices in Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia. Cheung sees the role of IT as 'partnering the business'. IT helps to create business value and gives the business a competitive edge.

"In the end, we want structured or unstructured data at the fingertips of our users," Cheung says. She strives for "automation" and to beef up the company's technical infrastructure and business resilience, as laid down in the five-year IT road map formulated two years ago.

The road map outlines several strategic initiatives including e-mail and file archiving, plus expanding the storage area network (SAN) and network infrastructure. This involves integrating all Asia offices with the company's wide area network (WAN), centralising all e-mail hosting, and consolidating all file servers into three core hubs: Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Singapore. It also includes strengthening business resilience by implementing disaster recovery.

Building foundation

"We did an initial assessment of the scope of the paper involved in converting to digital formats. We are talking about boxes and boxes. The company rents a warehouse of 2,000 sq ft [186 sq m] in Shatin to store all paper drawings and legal documents. Right now, the monthly expense for the storage and the courier charges for check-in and check-out is about HK$100,000 [about US$15,000]."

Together with piles of paper drawings and documents in a room-full of cubicles, manual searching for a paper record is a torment for employees at AECOM's Asia operations, who therefore are anxiously anticipating the advent of a DMS system. While employees are keen to file their documents in a centralised system, Cheung reaffirms the need to fortify the backend infrastructure first. "I share this with our stakeholders: 'There's time for everything. I can't just deploy some business solutions on a foundation that is not solid'," she says.

According to Cheung, DMS is envisioned in a reverse engineering process. The IT department will first build up its storage capacity, implement disaster recovery, consolidate all file servers at the three core hubs, and accelerate the WAN network before implementing DMS.

Multi-tiered storage

AECOM's Asia operation's senior management started its study on improving the previous data consolidation and security measures early last year, when they were seriously assessing the department's capabilities and the infrastructure.

Data management at that point was extremely challenging. Cheung recalls: "If you wanted to put anything onto the file server [SAN storage], there was no limit to it, and the file server service was very fragile. We were constantly running out of space. This created a vicious cycle where users started to store unstructured data in local machines which were not backed up nightly."

After reviewing Cheung's proposals, the company's senior management agreed in unison that they would opt for multi-tiered storage instead of continuing to expand the SAN storage.

Several vendor solutions were considered during the evaluation phase, and the panel concluded that EMC Centera was a stable and reliable storage solution that would integrate nicely with the company's existing architecture. Hewlett-Packard and IBM were on the list, but they were thought to be "extremely expensive".

Vendor decisions

Once EMC-Centera was decided, the company's storage became multi-tiered. Currently, its data centre in Shatin operates on a capacity of 25-terabyte Dell-EMC co-branded CX300 SAN tier-1 storage, the newly implemented EMC Centera as its tier-2 storage, and a Dell MD network-attached storage (NAS) as its tier-3 storage.

"Basically, the design is such that our e-mails would be archived to EMC Centera. And once we consolidated all the unstructured data-Word documents, Powerpoint files, drawings, jpegs-they will be stored in the MD, the NAS storage", says Cheung.

Cheung experienced issues in the early implementation stage. She says: "With no prior knowledge of how Centera works, we had problems in designing the pool structures and assignments. We had to set up extensive discussions with EMC consultants to get a clearer picture of how we should do it.

"Right now, with EMC Centera tier-storage and e-mail archiving solution, we are in a better position to support the growth of the business in Asia. And we have really prepared ourselves for our goal: to deploy DMS. We are marching towards our strategic direction very solidly with the EMC Centera solution at the backend [archiving storage]."

Expensive storage

Adds Cheung: "The major improvement is that we're able to reclaim primary SAN space. As you know, SAN storage is extremely expensive because of its high performance. And we were able to set policy. Any e-mail that is older than 15 days will be archived to Centera. The fact that we'll be able to set policies like that really allows us to efficiently use our SAN storage."

There are two levels of the firm's e-mail archiving policy-15 days and 30 days. "Thirty days is for our senior executives, while 15 days is for 99 per cent of staff," she says. With the new e-mail archiving solution implemented in the Hong Kong office, AECOM's Asia operation's pilot site, management is able to formulate compliance policies on document retention, as most Hong Kong government contracts require project vendors to retain records for at least seven years. "It is protection for the company rather than a burden, if you have policies to govern the entire company in black and white", Cheung says.

"We're very happy with the EMC solution. So far the consulting team is world-class. They're very responsive," she says.

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