London Gatwick Airport takes out 200 servers, moves to cloud, BYOD

Airport's IT transformation to cloud, BYOD support is saving money, boosting security

Cloud computing and a "bring your own device" (BYOD) strategy aren't technology approaches typically associated with running an airport's information-technology operations. But London Gatwick, the U.K.'s second largest airport, is pushing heavily into both.

With the approval of its internal management, Gatwick last autumn formalized a plan to shift the airport away from the typical data-center model rife with servers and applications to instead acquiring needed features through cloud services.

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Michael Ibbitson

Michael Ibbitson, CIO, London Gatwick

"We've taken 200 servers out," says Michael Ibbitson, chief information officer of London Gatwick, about what's been happening as the airport proceeds with its plan to go from three data centers to one by the end of 2016. Gatwick, which serves more than 34 million passengers each year, now is today using a dozen cloud-based services, including Amazon in Ireland, Box.net, ServiceNow and Yammer. In addition, Gatwick is working directly with a core airline-industry application supplier, UFIS Airport Solutions, to develop a cloud-based version of its products, says Ibbitson. Since this cloud approach is generally all quite new for airports, it's being watched in the industry to see how it flies.

To manage and control how the airport's employees make use of these cloud-computing services, Gatwick has turned to the cloud-based identity management service from Okta, which lets the security manager centrally manage, provision and de-provision single sign-on access to cloud services for Gatwick's staff.

Cost reduction is one main factor in the airport's cloud computing strategy, but Ibbitson points out that the file-sharing service from Box, for example, has improved over how the airport might otherwise try to share information, such as through FTP servers.

But switching to cloud-based services, something that Ibbitson advocated after becoming CIO of Gatwick Airport in May of last year, has also entailed a high level of direct interactions with these cloud-service providers to perform due diligence on them.

In these meetings, Gatwick staff drilled down into the cloud provider's IT infrastructure, business continuity and financial stability. And because Gatwick must adhere to the European Union data-privacy laws, it's also involved in ascertaining that cloud service providers can meet certain demands, such as guaranteeing certain data remain resident within the geographic EU region.

Cloud computing isn't the only innovation that's sprung up at the airport. Since every Gatwick employee involved in helping people transit through the airport process today has a personal smartphone, mainly Apple iOS or Android, the airport's BYOD strategy has airport employees using their own mobile devices at work.

Though it started somewhat informally, the airport eventually set up free Wi-Fi access on the corporate intranet to support BYOD, and used ActiveSync to link employee mobile devices up to corporate email. This BYOD strategy gained serious momentum during last year's Summer Olympics in London when the need to closely communicate, mainly using Yammer, was needed to help large groups of travelers, such as the Olympics team from China teams and others on chartered planes, get through the entry process easily as possible. He adds Gatwick staff even created their own sport out of that busy Olympics time, creating their own teams to see which team was faster.

The move to cloud computing and BYOD mobile has meant that even though Gatwick's data centers might be diminished, its primary bandwidth, especially for Internet access, has not. Where once Gatwick had only two 100Mbps bandwidth from BT, the airport has added a second service provider with new fiber-optics lines as well to maintain two 1Gbps circuit capacity for all that reaching to the cloud.

Can everything an airport might typically do go into the cloud? Ibbitson says probably not. The airport network also supports about 200 other parties, such as airline carriers. And since airports maintain robust video surveillance systems, these would not appear to be candidates for cloud computing.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: @MessmerE. Email: emessmer@nww.com.

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