Building IT In A New Iraq

Technologists are huddling with Iraqi officials to complete IT systems to maintain the new infrastructure.

June 21, 2004

8 Min Read
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In addition to democracy, the United States is bringing business technology to Iraq. As the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority prepares to hand power next week to a newly constituted Iraqi government, technologists within the authority are huddling with Iraqi officials to complete information systems to ensure the country can operate and maintain the power plants, refineries, hospitals, and thousands of other infrastructure elements under construction.

It won't do any good to build facilities if they can't be managed, says Dennis Plockmeyer.

At the heart of the plan is an effort to introduce an asset-management system to public officials who, in many cases, have never used anything more than pencil and paper to manage vital national assets. "It doesn't do any good if you build all of these facilities and then walk off without giving the recipients the tools and the wherewithal to manage them," says Dennis Plockmeyer, director of IT for the Coalition Provisional Authority's Program Management Office, which oversees logistics for all coalition initiatives.

Plockmeyer, a 53-year-old military veteran who served as CIO for the Navy's Facilities Engineering Command, has been in Iraq since September and will spend most of this year sharing a two bedroom, 12-by-60-foot trailer in Baghdad's Green Zone, a fortified section of the city from which the coalition is managing its major reconstruction efforts. He was in Alexandria, Va., last week and is scheduled to return to Iraq Saturday, flying on a commercial airliner to Kuwait City before boarding a military C-130 transport plane for the journey from Kuwait to Baghdad. "It's the five minutes before you land that you're most worried about," he says, referring to the sporadic sniper fire drawn by coalition aircraft.

Plockmeyer's team could have built an IT system to run just the coalition's reconstruction effort. That would have been cheaper and easier, since it would function entirely in English and run on off-the-shelf software. Instead, they opted for the complexity of writing additional code that lets the system run in parallel in Arabic and Kurdish. Plockmeyer needs to ensure that the investment in technology and processes to manage the reconstruction has ongoing value that can be transferred to the Iraqis. It's a central part of a vision held by Ret. Rear Adm. David Nash, the Program Management Office director and Plockmeyer's longtime friend from his years in Naval service. "He's focused on what happens the day after the contractors leave," Plockmeyer says. "If the lights go out and the water turns dirty, we're right back where we started from."

To ensure that doesn't happen, staffers in the Program Management Office have begun training Iraqi officials in how to deploy and use the asset-management system that the office employs to track ongoing reconstruction efforts by contractors such as Halliburton Co. and Lucent Technologies. In the months following the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqi government, Plockmeyer hopes to have about 150 Iraqi technologists working side by side with Program Management Office staffers.The technology behind the asset-management system would look familiar to many U.S. IT managers, built around Oracle's database, project software, and 11i business applications. That system is connected through IBM WebSphere middleware to other engineering, construction, and asset-management applications, such as MRO Software Inc.'s Maximo program, and project-management software from Primavera Systems Inc. It's housed on servers located in the Program Management Office in Baghdad and is mirrored at a site in Virginia to permit remote management and updates.

Connecting the various components that comprise the system was relatively easy, Plockmeyer says. The tough part was adding additional code that allows it to accommodate inputs and generate information in three languages. "I've never seen anything like it in all my years of computing," says Mike Gray, CIO at Total Resource Management, which the coalition tapped to build and implement the system under a contract with an initial value of $1.9 million. "It's totally unique," says Gray, a computer-science Ph.D. and 25-year industry veteran.

Four Total Resource Management staffers have been in Baghdad since shortly after the contract was awarded in January, and they have been working with local Iraqi translators to create the system's trilingual capabilities. Ray Brisbane, CEO of Total Resource Management, says software with such sophisticated capabilities ordinarily could take years to deploy. "Yet, we've had to deliver it in months. There's a lot on the line to make something that is rock solid in a very short time frame," he says. Mike McCormick, Total Resource Management's project manager for the system, adds that his staff is working 90 to 100 hours per week to enhance it. "It's in the interest of the Iraqi people for all these things to move forward quickly so that conditions are restored to what they were before the war and beyond that," says McCormick, who spent 28 years as a Marine.

Total Resource Management's work is a small-but-central piece of the effort throughout the country to rebuild--and, in some cases, create for the first time--a solid IT infrastructure. For example, Lucent Technologies has a two-year contract worth as much as $75 million to design and build communications and IT infrastructure in 12 areas in Iraq, including Wi-Fi networks, public-safety information networks, TV and radio systems, and IT for the postal system. BearingPoint Inc. has a $9 million contract to help design government policies and institutions, including financial systems.

Total Resource Management's system automatically tells Program Management Office staffers when a new contract has been approved and what work needs to be scheduled. Plockmeyer hopes that within 30 to 60 days, some contractors in the field will have the ability to input live data and progress reports into the system using PCs that communicate with the main server via satellite Internet links. Later, the system should let users track the status of all construction projects within the country. A coalition or Iraqi engineer working on, say, an oil refinery in the southern port city of Basra could use a PC to input progress updates. Modules could be added that would monitor the health of oil pipelines and alert authorities to a drop in pressure caused by mechanical failure or sabotage, Plockmeyer says.The coalition's asset-management system also will be able to capture data from remote diagnostic and management technologies being built into some of the newer Iraqi buildings. Plockmeyer says some of the construction blueprints he's seen call for utility plants to incorporate advanced SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) technologies--a first in Iraq.

An Iraqi observes the reconstruction of the bombed out Olympic Committee building in Baghdad.

Coalition officials want to introduce the asset-management system to Iraqi administrators in small doses. At present, Plockmeyer and staff are discussing ways to apply the technology to the electricity sector around Baghdad. Under a proposed plan, the system would be deployed at one or two facilities within easy reach of the Green Zone, and Program Management Office staffers would train Iraqi nationals to use it. "If we can see success on a small scale, then I think we can see it on a big scale," Plockmeyer says.

After months of work there, Plockmeyer believes the progress the coalition has made in Iraq has been largely obscured by news that focuses mostly on the day-to-day violence. The list of projects completed or initiated under the coalition's watch--and managed through the asset-management system--is lengthy. Each week, about $75 million in new construction work begins, on projects ranging from water-treatment and waste-management systems to new schools.

There are many technology-literate Iraqis anxious to apply their skills to the rebuilding effort, Plockmeyer says. While few have worked with advanced applications such as Maximo, many have basic technology skills and are familiar with Oracle and other common IT environments.

"I'm getting a steady flow of resumes from young Iraqi men and women who want to participate. They understand their skills may not be the most current, but they're ready to learn," Plockmeyer says. If all goes as planned, Total Resource Management would likely implement the asset-management system at various Iraqi ministries, extending its work in the country at least through this year. "Working shoulder to shoulder on the same system gives you the basis for a successful turnover," Plockmeyer says.Ever present in a war zone like Iraq is the threat of attacks, on coalition personnel and any Iraqis working with them. From his living quarters, Plockmeyer can hear and feel the mortar shells that Iraqi insurgents occasionally fire into the Green Zone. It's a reminder that while he's in a relatively safe haven, the streets and countryside beyond coalition headquarters are rife with violence. Dozens of civilian contractors have been killed or taken hostage in the months since the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The violence hasn't delayed the implementation of the core asset-management system, Plockmeyer says. However, Internet access needs to be widely available if it's to be fully utilized by some of the more far-flung Iraqi ministry outposts. The violence has slowed efforts by communications contractors, including Lucent, to deploy fiber beyond Baghdad. For now, satellite links are needed to make most Internet connections.

Still, Plockmeyer believes the project ultimately will be a success. "I'm an optimist," he says. "I think this will exceed our wildest expectations."

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