Cloud

How to build a cloud-first business

The CIO of Gatwick Airport Michael Ibbitson on the advantages of shifting to cloud services and the changes in the IT needed to make it happen.

As London's second largest international airport Gatwick historically built large IT systems in-house.

But today the airport is set on a different course, as it moves towards using cloud services wherever it can.

Gatwick Airport CIO Michael Ibbitson said: "Airports have historically gone for this big infrastructure investment in IT. That doesn't make sense when there are hundreds of companies across the world that can do this with much greater expertise than we can."

The airport uses about a dozen cloud services, including storage and collaboration platform Box, and identity management service Okta for single sign-on. Gatwick also uses the corporate social network Yammer and ServiceNow to automate IT management.

Why cloud?

A core reason Ibbitson favours cloud services is accessibility. Making systems previously tied to office-bound computers available on any device has clear benefits, he said.

Ibbitson references a new cloud-based Airport Collaborative Decision Making system that will allow airport ground handlers and airline staff to share the latest information on all aircraft, and be accessible via the web browser.

"It's going to be accessible by any Android or iOS device, so anybody that need access to that tool can get it wherever they are," he said, speaking at Box's recent Business without Boundaries event in London.

"We've seen a lot of these collaborative decision making tools launched in industry and they've always been behind a firewall."

The system will extend the reach of systems to its partners, in this case airlines like EasyJet, with minimal effort, he said.

"EasyJet love this from us because they are just going to put a screen with a web browser on it in their control centre in Luton and they're going to have situational awareness of the whole of Gatwick."

Ditching BlackBerry and backing BYOD

The flipside of making systems accessible is providing devices staff can access systems from. More than 1,600 staff at Gatwick have signed up to use their own devices at work, with a 50-50 split between Android and iOS devices.

Security and operational staff working on the ground in the airport carry smartphones and tablets. The bring your own device (BYOD) scheme allows staff to securely access select applications from their devices using Okta single sign-on.

The airport used to provide BlackBerry devices for 400 of its staff, but Ibbitson said it turned off support for BlackBerry last week.

"We've totally embraced the bring your own device culture because we want our employees to have choice in how they go about doing their work on whatever device they are comfortable with – whether it's a 10-inch tablet, a seven-inch phablet or just a small smartphone."

How to make the jump to cloud

Ibbitson isn't advocating ripping out every in-house system and replacing each one with a cloud service, rather favouring cloud services wherever possible.

He describes his strategy as examining which applications will need replacing by the end of the decade with an eye to using software-as-a-service and infrastructure-as-a-service wherever possible.

"Not every application we have is going to work that way but there are lots of areas where we think it can," he said.

The reliance on cloud services has obviously increased network traffic, and Gatwick has upgraded to a network with two 1Gbps capacity.

Freedom to change

By prioritising 'as-a-service' when buying software and infrastructure Gatwick also gains greater flexibility to swap between providers.

"We can choose to switch to a different 'as-a-service' provider pretty much at any time we want," he said.

"We can bring another one service in and test it out with a core group of users. If it works for them better than what we had before we can migrate people across in a much more simplistic fashion than we could when we built and owned all of the infrastructure."

Of course, there are still technical and operational challenges when moving between different online services, and Ibbitson admits "we're having to do some interesting things around our data warehousing platform because different departments have used different services on the internet and internally, and how we get them back to a single set-up is a challenge."

Cutting system sprawl

When Ibbitson joined Gatwick the airport had 160 different applications, a legacy of systems being spun up by IT for different business units on request.

In future Ibbitson wants to make sure requests for new features can't be more easily met by existing cloud services before committing to new software.

"We're saying why don't we look at ServiceNow as a tool that might be able to help us manage our maintenance and engineering requests, rather than going out and finding something else," he said.

"We were going to build an archiving solution inside our company and I was like 'I don't get it, we've got unlimited storage with Box, why would we consider building our own archiving solution? How about we ask Box to create an archiving solution that will be a lot lower cost and much quicker to deliver'."

Gatwick is carrying over the idea of reusability to its passenger information kiosks. The airport is rolling out more than 200 Samsung tablets throughout the airport that will replace kiosks. Providing information for these tablets will be the Gatwick Airport website, which has been overhauled to give it a responsive design that tailors its layout to the device it is being viewed on, whether that's a laptop, tablet or phone.

The airport plans to reduce the number of datacentres used by Gatwick from three to one by the end of 2016.

What a cloud-centric IT team needs to look like

An IT team looking to pursue a cloud-first model should aim to excel in three core areas, Ibbitson said.

  • Customer service and user interface

    Corporately sanctioned services need to be as easy to use as consumer-targeted alternatives, otherwise staff will ditch your clunky corporate offering and use their favourite online tool instead.

    "You've got to get the business to trust you as an IT team. Their first port of call when they want something new should be to come to their IT representative and say 'I want to do this, how can I do it?'

    "That trust with your business comes through delivering great customer service and a track record of delivering solutions that they really want to use."

    Customer service also plays into security, as providing a secure service that is as easy to use as the insecure consumer alternative is key in stopping staff flouting security.

    "They can copy a file onto Dropbox or onto a USB stick but if give them Box and say 'It's integrated with you laptop, your iPad, iPhone and you just put this file in this folder on your computer and it replicates everywhere', they're more likely to use that and you've got corporate control over it."

    Convenience has driven take-up of services like Box and Okta for staff at every level, he said.

  • Security

    It is essential to know the ins-and-outs of how a cloud service provider handles security.

    "Whatever we do, wherever we host these solutions, we have to be good at understanding how cloud service providers do their security, to be able to audit them and look at their certification.

    "The security question is also around who's out there? Who's going to try and hack into us? Is it ok to store our data in the US? What does that mean for us as a EU-based company?"

  • Integration

    Making systems hosted by different providers play nice together has it challenges, and Ibbitson said his team are working on creating a cloud-based service to sit between these systems and mediate, ensuring they are happy swapping data and commands.

    "All of these service providers don't fit our specific business so we have to become great at integration," he said.

    "We've been doing a lot of work on the Azure to understand how we can create web services and basically create an internet-facing ESB [Enterprise Service Bus] that allows us to integrate various platforms."

    While some providers, such as Box and Okta, are willing to work with you on integrating with your systems, others are not, he said.

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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