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Michael Ibbitson, chief information officer of Gatwick Airport

Michael Ibbitson, chief information officer of Gatwick Airport

Gatwick airport, London’s second largest airport has been moving its core internal and customer-facing IT systems to the cloud since 2012 in a bid to make it more agile, efficient, and – as it mulls the addition of another runway – scalable. Michael Ibbitson, Gatwick’s chief information officer says that while the airport’s embrace of cloud has already begun to yield significant benefits, the aviation sector remains largely underserved by specialised cloud offerings which he says may create roadblocks in the ability of the aviation industry to innovate.

London’s airport market is extremely competitive, with a total of five airports – Heathrow, Stanstead, Luton, Gatwick, and City – catering to London’s 8.2 million people and the hubdreds of thousands of travelers that pass through the capital’s aviation hubs each day. These airports regularly aim to maximise the efficiency with which travelers move through their terminals, which is particularly challenging to achieve as evidenced by the capacity issues experienced at several of London’s airports, and they regularly compete on everything from queue times to retail experience.

Ibbitson told Business Cloud News that Gatwick began to look at cloud services when the airport started to look into supporting its potential expansion.

“We’re looking at building a second runway – and how do you ready yourself as a business to basically double in size? So about a year ago we looked at how we’ll be ready for that growth, and for what that means in terms of operating an airport and the challenges you come up against, which is where our cloud strategy comes in,” Ibbitson says.

As one might suspect, aviation is also a very seasonal business, with peaks and troughs regularly experienced throughout the months and during each day, an element that further nudged the airport towards cloud adoption.

In 2012, Ibbitson put forward a proposal to embark on an infrastructure as a service and software as a service strategy, with a view towards scaling the cost of running its IT service with the volume of business the airport receives, and making the business more resilient – one of the driving factors behind a recent deal with Xchanging, Fujitsu and Cisco to implement a cloud-based VoIP system at the airport.

“The new telephony system brings in a whole new world of capability around business continuity and resilience. When you have challenges at the airport – such as a massive snow disruption or a power outage or something like that your main systems will remain very resilient,” Ibbitson says, adding that some components of the airport’s original telephony systems were installed as early as the 1950s. “Our existing system has the capacity for 6,000 extensions, but we only usually use 3,500 and you have to carry that extra capacity in case it’s needed around seasonal peaks. Whereas now we don’t need to carry any excess capacity.”

“It was about resilience and business continuity, and the abilty to then grow in the future without having to make any large capital investments. We can grow and shrink our business month to month, season to season, and during each day,” he says.

The project to overhaul its communications systems and shift them to the cloud, which began last month, is only one of the seven cloud-projects the airport has implemented since 2012. Gatwick uses Okta for single sing on and identity management so IT administrators can consolidate governance for all cloud applications in one place.  It started using ServiceNow for IT asset management and technical support, bringing back people that were managing the service desk in-house and setting  up a self-service portal. It also implemented Yammer to improve internal communications among staff across the airport and encourage a BYOD culture, which also helped reduced the airport’s device costs.

“We also had to take security into consideration – once you move to a cloud services environment, your security requirements change. No longer are you worried about people traversing your firewall to access your files in your datacentre. You’re thinking, ‘how are these services being protected by the people who operate them, and what does that mean for me – how do I protect them?’”

“We had to look at our customer service as an IT department because we serve not only the internal IT requirements of the business but also the airlines, ground handlers, food and beverage businesses and retail outlets,” Ibbitson says.

The airport is also part-way through its Box rollout. “From a file management perspective, in terms of building out the capability and maturity across the whole company, it’s a multi-year project. At the moment have lots of on-site servers and databases, and we have a client server mix for the windows clients which gets complicated and requires a lot of staff to operate. We have about five staff managing documents from a service and IT management perspective,” Ibbitson says. “So from a complexity and cost perspective it’s much easier to manage and really helps build a good business case in the long term.”

The airport has also worked to roll-out a number of cloud-based innovations in its customer-facing environments, from baggage drop-off and check-in to security and immigration services.

“We’ve trialled a bag drop solution that is completely designed using web services. We connect to the APIs of the airlines and there’s no middle man or complex on-site infrastructure, and we’ve successfully delivered. It’s lowered the check-in and bag drop-off times to 45 seconds per passenger,” Ibbitson says. “The machines are cheap and the integration is cheap so we can have up to 70 of these across the airport that don’t need to be manned in the same way as the old check-in desks.”

Gatwick is the second busiest airport in London and the UK, serving close to 10,000 travellers each day

Gatwick is the second busiest airport in London and the UK, serving close to 10,000 travellers each day

The addition of face recognition and iris scanning technologies linked up to the check-in system also helps measure potential queue times and gives real-time information to security personnel so lanes can be opened or shut in an automated fashion as demand requires.

“It means 95 per cent of passengers travelling through Gatwick pass through security in under five minutes,” Ibbitson says, which also means travelers spend more time in the airport’s food, beverage and retail outfits, significantly benefiting the wider business. It is also the first airport in the UK to roll out e-gates that take advantage of the biometric features embedded in European Union passports, and Ibbitson says the new machines will be able to analyse and clear travelers for entry within 12 seconds on average, tackling an issue that desperately needs to be addressed according to a recently published UK government report.

All of this is part of Gatwick’s bid to become the most innovative airport in the UK, according to Ibbitson. It has already moved its dev and test environments to the public cloud, and the airport is looking to shift its mission critical applications to platforms like AWS and Azure as the price of virtual instances continues to fall.

But challenges still remain, particularly around legacy applications, and Ibbitson also says that the aviation industry in general is significantly underserved by specialised cloud service providers, which means there is a huge opportunity for innovators to step in and potentially displace specialist ISVs currently catering to this market.

“We’re innovative by embracing cloud services in aviation. We think it’s going to position Gatwick as a great place for passengers to come and experience a great journey in part because IT can be more easily and quickly delivered. When you think of the London market the choice of the passenger becomes to either go through some of the older, less efficient, less technically innovative airports, or airports that are ahead of the curve and provide a much more efficient, pleasant experience.”

“There’s a general concern about legacy applications, they are not designed and architected in a way that allows them to work in elastic computing environments,”Ibbitson says, echoing the concerns of many enterprises looking to embrace a mix of private and public cloud solutions.” We have a lot of on-site services today – and the fear is, from the technical teams, ‘how are we going to understand and make that transition?’”

“Our software vendors – in an industry vertical like aviation, there are very few – all have their own specific ways of developing their applications. To try to convince them to move to a cloud service delivery model has been quite tough. So far we’ve had a tender go out that says “we want our new system built in AWS” and we’ve only had one company successfully bid on that model,” he says, adding that it speaks to a general trend he’s noticed in the cloud sector more broadly.

“A lot of what we’ve seen of cloud services today has been big enterprise-wide solutions – file sharing and storage services, ERP, CRM solutions, but nobody is really attacking the industry verticals where you have a need for very specific enterprise-grade applications and services. Software providers that can do that successfully will really lead in this space, but we’re not quite there yet from my perspective,” he says.

“It’s the acceptance of the software developers and the industry specialists to come forward with the model that we want, that is our biggest challenge going forward. It will take some innovators, some new starters to come into the market and shake it up I think,” he concludes.

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