Birmingham Airport tech on flexible flight path

Head of information services Wayne Smith talks virtualisation and consolidation...

...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...