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AFD reaches all four corners of the world with Bull

Posted on 24 January 2010 by Pierre Picard

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By Jean-François Arnal, Director of IT, Facilities and Logistics at the AFD
The French Overseas Development Agency (L’Agence française de développement or AFD) has taken advantage of an IT infrastructure update to centralize its information system and make it more homogeneous. Over the space of a year, despite working in sometimes difficult conditions, Bull’s teams implemented a new infrastructure and messaging system across four continents in more than 50 countries.

The French Overseas Development Agency, the AFD, is a public body charged with implementing the government’s external aid and development policy, internationally and in the French overseas territories. The AFD operates in four continents and more than 50 countries, financing and supporting projects at a local level that are designed to help improve people’s living conditions, stimulate economic development and protect the environment. In 2008, the AFD distributed some €3.5 billion, helping in particularly to provide clean drinking water to 4.4 million people and education to some seven million children.

Working in the field, the AFD helps local authorities, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and private companies deliver their projects through a wide range of financial and technical instruments, which include giving direct grants and subsidies, loaning money, taking part-ownership and providing operational assistance. The AFD makes use of dozens of IT applications to help it fulfill this role successfully, especially business management tools, funds transfer systems and project management or communications tools. Early in 2007, when it was preparing for the forthcoming update to its IT hardware, the Agency decided to capitalize on this essential operation to redefine the overall infrastructure of its information system.

Centralization and homogenization

At that time, each of the AFD’s local offices had its own systems, making support operations complicated and making it extremely hard to share information. So the AFD defined a new scheme for its information systems, with an approach based on centralization and homogenization. “This approach allows us to control the cost of operating our IT systems, and to improve their reliability and performance while also opening up new functionalities,” sums up Jean-François Arnal, Director of IT, Facilities and Logistics at the AFD.

The solution involved: providing each of AFD’s offices with a single server to support operations that cannot be brought back to the center; replacing the 800 or so workstations and their associated peripherals with new, standard equipment; and strengthening the networks to enable the messaging system to be upgraded, improve transmissions and prepare for a move to Voice-over-IP, a very important initiative in terms of costs and more fluid communications. In particular, it involved adopting different, optimized approaches depending on available local technical resources (satellite connections or via local telecoms operators).

Bull: the right company for the job

But if this vision was to become reality, there was one vital step to be successfully completed: implementation. The AFD has 67 local offices in over 50 countries, most of them developing economies where communications infrastructures are often limited. So when the Agency put out its invitation to tender in 2007, it was looking for a supplier that not only had the right technical skills and effective international presence, but also the agility and determination needed to cope with all these situations. In the end Bull was chosen, because its profile fitted these criteria, especially its ability to provide complete coverage of all the geographic areas involved, either directly or by using its local partners.

Rigorous preparation

So preparations began for this unusual deployment program. This phase was crucial to the success of the project because its aims were ambitious: the whole operation had to be carried out between June 2008 and June 2009, which meant equipping an average of two offices every week. “We were very well aware that this pace of work could only be maintained if everything was organized perfectly. If we were going to be able to react to events as they came up, it was essential to sort out all the possible technical and organizational issues in advance,” stresses Jean-François Arnal.

Given the actual physical, material and sometimes political conditions in some of the countries involved, the logistical constraints and requirement for total security were the main challenge on this project. The timetable, methodology, allocation of tasks… everything was carefully planned. Depending on how big they were and where they were located, the local offices were put into six homogeneous groups, with a standard hardware kit defined for each one. A technical support team was set up for each group, as well as a team responsible for dealing with concrete questions (visas, transport, accommodation…). Finally, pilot implementations were carried out in three representative branch offices, which confirmed that a week would be needed to ensure the successful completion of the operation, as well as the validity and relevance of the technical choices that had been made.

No delays, despite the unknowns

Seven of Bull’s technical experts from around the world, each with responsibility for a different geographic area, were initially brought together and trained in Paris, before touring the various offices to install the hardware with the help of local teams. Despite the unknowns, delays in delivering hardware and customs bottleneck, the project suffered no delays. In some cases, the operation was overtaken by a dramatic turn of events, but because of the good upfront preparation these situations were managed very effectively by tweaking the scheduling of individual deployments.

By July 2009, as planned, everyone working for the AFD had access to brand new hardware, appreciating not only the resulting improvement in performance but also the greater ease of use. In general terms, the AFD has found that the quality of its communications, especially messaging, is more stable. “This project has been very positive. The very fact that it kept to schedule demonstrates its success, because any technical or organizational difficulty would have inevitably resulted in a slippage. There was genuine ‘osmosis’ between the teams. Bull really took the success of this initiative to heart, which created the conditions for an exemplary partnership,” confirms Jean-François Arnal, with evident satisfaction.

Now it is down to the AFD to capitalize on the huge potential of this new architecture, which opens up significant new possibilities in terms of information sharing. Numerous projects designed to enhance collaboration within the network of offices are already being envisaged, while other options for knowledge management and more widespread us of video-conferencing are being explored: operational improvements that will have a positive impact of the quality of support that the AFD provides day in, day out to dozens of projects worldwide…

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