IT is sometimes viewed by other departments as an obstacle to getting things done. That’s the main reason Birmingham International Airport’s head of information services Wayne Smith rebranded the IT department when he assumed the role in 2009.

“I instigated a transformation programme where I wanted to change the department from being a policing and necessary evil to being a more service-led department,” he told silicon.com.

“If you implement technology, it’s thought of as implementing something techie, something a bit geeky, something that other people might not understand. Whereas if you’re delivering services I think that’s a softer set of skills. It implies [being] more [approachable]. It implies more of a complete package,” he added.

As part of the transformation, Smith changed the name of the department to information services (IS), to show people inside and outside the department that a change had taken place heralding a new and fresh approach.

Birmingham Airport's IS department focuses on services as well as supporting hardware

Birmingham Airport’s IS department focuses on services as well as supporting hardware, such as flight information screensPhoto: Birmingham Airport

He explained that the department doesn’t just provide hardware such as the latest phone, but also services such as internet access and email – a “subtle distinction” reflected in the rebranding.

Smith started at the airport as an analyst programmer 23 years ago and has seen significant changes in terms of the scale of the airport’s operations and also the technology priorities and challenges, which he discussed with silicon.com.

Technology fit for an expanding airport

Birmingham Airport opened in 1939 and is currently the sixth-largest UK international airport in terms of passenger numbers. Some 9.8 million travellers passed through the airport in 2008.

It is undergoing further expansion with the construction of a £45m state-of-the-art terminal extension, which started in June 2007.

The IS department currently has just nine full-time staff to support the airport’s 500-plus employees as well as staff from more than 100 other companies that also operate in the airport, including airlines, handling agents and shops.

The IS team provides systems and services to these other companies that choose to use them – from phone lines to flat-screen flight information displays and “everything in between”, according to Smith.

In contrast to when Smith first started working at the airport, the IS department now does little internal technology development, and its workforce consists of…

…project managers and semi-technical staff in the areas of database, network and telecoms who run systems rather than develop them.

This change is partly down to the small size of the team but also the greater availability of off-the-shelf airport-specific technology that requires less development work.

Much of what the IS department does is related to delivering services and managing supplier contracts rather than running the technology, according to Smith.

“Nine people running a major international airport in terms of the IT isn’t a lot, so we can only do that by having third parties offer services and contracts to us, and we tend to manage and look after those contracts and those suppliers,” he said.

Head of IS Wayne Smith rose from analyst programmer to running Birmingham Airport's technology

Head of IS Wayne Smith rose from analyst programmer to running Birmingham Airport’s techPhoto: Birmingham Airport

So the main objective of the IS department, as far as Smith is concerned, is to be more responsive to customer needs.

The tech challenges in an international airport

One of the main challenges for the IS team is that there’s never a quiet period during which the team can upgrade systems. The team also has to be available at times when other IT teams wouldn’t be expected to work, such as weekends and bank holidays.

“You come to an airport at three o’clock in the morning and there are people around and it’s buzzing… which makes it an exciting place to work but it’s also frustrating when you want to upgrade a system. People don’t go home at 5.30pm so we can have the systems to ourselves to upgrade – it gets a little bit quieter around two in the morning, which is great for everyone else but not great for us [when] we’ve got to stay that late to upgrade a system.”

The other major challenge, according to Smith, is that there can be “dramatic peaks in demand” when certain events – such as snow, fog, volcanic ash clouds or runway incidents – lead to increased demands from the public for information.

“When things like that happen, the public turn to the airport and the demand for information services at that point rises exponentially, and then it will tail down to its normal level afterwards.”

Creating a virtual environment

A recently completed six-month project to virtualise the airport’s server infrastructure should help the IS department deal with these challenges more effectively.

Before the project, the airport had accumulated many servers of different makes and sizes spread over two datacentres. When new services were required, the IS team had to buy and set up a new live server as well as a back-up.

And despite a five-year refresh policy, some servers were actually older, so many had to be replaced when Smith became head of IS in 2009. But Smith had other ideas.

“The lump of money that could have been used to replace the servers with like-for-like boxes gave us the opportunity to look at a better way of working and because of the age of some of the hardware, it was a fairly simple business case that allowed us to…

…take 48 of our old servers and virtualise them onto six physical hosts running in the virtual environment.”

Working with virtualisation consultancy Centralis, Birmingham Airport virtualised most of its server estate down to six physical hosts using VMware virtualisation technology and virtual storage from NetApp.

Some of the newer servers were incorporated into the new set-up so the IS department only had to buy one new server in addition to the network cards, memory and new processors – all of which helped in the financial justification of the project.

Centralis said the whole infrastructure could be supported by three physical host servers, although the IS team decided to use six servers to provide redundancy across the two datacentres.

The two datacentres now run in parallel with 50 per cent of services on each. The NetApp storage technology mirrors images on a constant basis so only 50 per cent of capability will be lost if one datacentre goes down, with services being restored in the other datacentre in a couple of minutes.

Server virtualisation will allow more flexible services

Birmingham Airport’s virtualisation project will let the IS department provide more flexible services to airlinesPhoto: Birmingham Airport

Smith decided to make the failover technology partially manual so the team would know about and be able to deal with any changes that took place. Smith feared that a fully automated system might mean the team would be unaware if changes took place, leaving the infrastructure exposed to risk.

Once the technology and business-case decisions were in place, the project was relatively smooth according to Smith.

“When [Centralis] started the physical to virtual migration of servers, it was a relatively quick process. It was almost like popping peas and every day I’d go out and check and there was another couple done and it was just a matter of working through them. So once they’d started it was very quick,” he said.

Centralis consultants passed on their expertise in the technology to a single member of Smith’s IS team, who also managed the project. The plan is for the same member of the IS team to train colleagues to use the VMware and NetApp technology so there is technical support at the airport.

Despite Centralis implementing the technology, the involvement of the IS team was key for Smith. “I always like the projects to be managed, to be controlled by internal people because…

…they know what the drivers are for the business, they know what the priorities are for the company as a whole and then they manage the consultants, the specialists, the technical people, to get the system implemented.”

The benefits of virtualisation

The initial business case for the virtualisation project was justified by the financial sums involved, with Centralis linking key project milestones with payment so the airport only paid when certain steps had been completed.

“It was easy to sell to the board because of that justification and because of the other benefits it’s brought to us,” Smith said.

The IS department now forecasts that the project will pay for itself after three years due to the 40 per cent energy cost savings in terms of energy usage, due to more efficient cooling and use of hardware compared with the old infrastructure.

With the virtual infrastructure in place, considerable time can be saved when new services need to be set up because virtual machines can be spun up rather than the IS team needing to procure and configure new servers.

Non-virtual infrastructure

Not all the airport’s servers have been virtualised due to legacy airport-specific applications, and Smith’s team is currently working out how to update these.

“So from our users’ point of view, it’s a much more responsive service. The end users don’t really care about lead time on servers – all they want to see is their application so they can test it and decide whether it’s right for them or not. So that’s the underpinning principle,” Smith said.

Other benefits include a 20 per cent increase in computing capacity that should cater for the airport’s IT needs for the next three years and a reduction in downtime when there are issues with the system that require it to be taken offline. For example, when the infrastructure had to be taken offline recently due to a water leak, there were two hours of downtime compared with 12 hours if the issue had occurred with the old system.

Despite these benefits, Smith is mindful of the need for the IS department to keep sufficient control of the virtual environment.

“Because it’s relatively easy to set up a new server – we just create one from an image – what I don’t want to end up with is the server sprawl that people talk about in the virtualised world. So we’re keeping it quite tightly controlled in that the main guy has to authorise the server images and is also the guy who looks after the licensing side of things as well,” Smith said.

“We’ve got that control in place so we don’t end up with…

…hundreds and hundreds of virtual servers that were set up for a test for two weeks but were never used again,” he added.

Smith also sees the virtual environment as “a step towards cloud computing” as people don’t know or care where their service is and the environment is relatively easy to scale up and down.

The airport isn’t currently engaging with cloud computing in the true sense of the term but is discussing what Smith called “more flexible technologies” to pick up increased demand for technology services.

The organisation is using Rackspace to host some more public-facing systems but is talking to the supplier and other companies about different technologies.

Desktop virtualisation

Following the server virtualisation project, the IS team is now looking at desktop virtualisation, although Smith said the business case is more complex than the server project because the move to a more sophisticated technology is likely to need more upfront investment from the board.

Birmingham Airport's IS department is aiming to consolidate its tech contracts

The development of Birmingham Airport means the IS team is keen to consolidate technology contractsPhoto: Birmingham Airport

“Obviously it’s more secure to be in a datacentre and it would get backed up centrally and all those nice bits and pieces but when a board is looking at hard figures, the desktop virtualisation figures aren’t as easy to sell to the board – it’s not such a black-and-white project to get approved,” Smith said.

Funds have been allocated for a pilot scheme to take place at the beginning of the next financial year in April, with 25 of the airport’s 650 PCs being virtualised, although the decision about which technology to use has yet to be taken.

Some of the PCs best suited to desktop virtualisation include those at boarding gates, check-in and flight management.

A move to a virtual environment should make desktop operating system upgrades easier, although Smith said this kind of migration wouldn’t be carried out using a big-bang approach. “[Desktop virtualisation] will certainly allow things to happen more easily in the virtual desktop world than in the physical world,” he said.

The airport is generally a Microsoft shop with the organisation adopting every other Windows operating system. Much of the PC estate is currently on Windows Vista after the airport bypassed Windows XP when it moved from Windows 2000, something which created a few issues.

“While [Vista] was OK for a good proportion of the standard desktops, there are the odd systems here that wouldn’t run on it. So because of a loss of support for Windows 2000, we’ve had to go to XP on some of those – but only a small handful,” Smith said.

Although the plan would tend to be to upgrade the desktop OS when the successor to Windows 7 emerges, Smith suggested if there was an easy way to…

…move to Windows 7, it might be turned to as an interim step.

“Some of the systems are quite old – some of the legacy applications – and there are now projects ongoing to replace those with more up-to-date, virtualisable versions of those systems to get them onto the virtual platform because it just gives us so much more resilience,” Smith said.

There are six systems – on 12 servers – some of which the IS department is waiting for manufacturers to release software for, with others being used for larger scale projects.

One of these larger scale projects is an 18-month programme to implement the new flight-management database required to fulfil changes from the air-traffic control authorities, which requires a new system to be integrated from scratch.

Consolidation of tech suppliers

The other main focus of the IS team is consolidating the different technology contracts that are currently in place.

“We’re now looking at ways of consolidating some of those contracts to make them an easier, simpler management task to manage,” Smith said.

Birmingham Airport is heading for a simpler and more flexible tech infrastructure

Birmingham Airport is heading for a simpler and more flexible tech infrastructure in the futurePhoto: Birmingham Airport

Like the server estate, there are numerous contracts that have been signed over time for different servers and so the aim of the work is for fewer suppliers to provide the different services.

For instance, a single supplier could provide network services, such as firewall maintenance, antivirus and monitoring, under a single contract. This new approach should lead to economies of scale for the suppliers and reduced costs for the IS department.

The airport has a tender out for telecoms and data – currently five suppliers and seven contracts – and is working on tenders for check-in and gate management systems and a replacement for the airport operational database, the current version of which can’t be virtualised.

“Three projects of that size for this size of department will keep us going quite nicely, thank you,” Smith said.

The essential skills of an airport head of IS

Bearing in mind the projects that Smith is overseeing at the moment, he said one of the challenges of his job is being aware of airport-specific tech developments while also keeping track of more general business-related technology the organisation could take advantage of.

“They’re both environments that change and progress very quickly… but I haven’t got the luxury of being able to concentrate on one or the other. I have to keep up to date with both those worlds and that takes a lot of effort and a lot of time,” he told silicon.com.

Smith also feels an important skill for someone in his kind of job is to work out which of these developments will actually provide real benefits to the business, “and aren’t just all fluff and no substance”.

Once a technology has been identified, the ability to build a business case and sell it to the board as well as to other partner departments in the airport is key.

“It sounds simple but it takes a lot of time,” he said.