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IT Last modified on July 11, 2012

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Cloud computing has created a wealth of commercial, operational and customer service benefits for airports, writes Mike Benjamin.

As SITA announced last year, the buzz around ‘cloud computing’ is considerable, but the good part is it is real, and starting to deliver what it’s claimed it is capable of doing.

Benefits include cheap and easy, on-demand access to unlimited  IT infrastructure and applications anytime, anywhere and from any device that can access the Internet.

“Cloud represents a unique opportunity for the air transport  industry to break free from the shackles of legacy technology and  embrace the benefits afforded by digital technologies and  high-speed computing power,” says SITA in its New Frontiers Papers.

In simple terms, cloud computing is the provision of IT services  over the Internet. Although they may not know it, it has already  been been embraced by hundreds of millions of people worldwide through Skype and social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter  and YouTube.

From a business perspective, the cloud is widely viewed as the next evolution in IT services as it gives users access to common applications online through web browsers, while the software and data are stored and processed on remote servers managed by third parties.

So, how will it benefit airports? Well, over the next 10 years, the amount of digital information creation will grow 44 times annually, according to Intel Research.

As physical servers and in-house IT departments work to stretch capacity, businesses across diverse industries are looking to reduce costs by storing and accessing information through the cloud.

By the end of 2012, IT research firm, Gartner, predicts that half of all Global 100 companies will have at least one service in a private, public, or hybrid cloud. While entrusting a third-party to deliver critical business information may raise an inherent red flag, having the ability to push applications and large quantities of data to an offsite set of servers managed by a third-party, is becoming increasingly popular.

And the aviation industry is no exception, as the opportunities for  cost cutting and resource optimisation are significant, and businesses  are feeling more and more comfortable storing information outside of their four walls. In fact, Intel has noted that 60% of server workloads  will be virtualised by 2013.

Airports have become natural candidates for leveraging cloud technology; the day-to-day demand of managing large quantities of data regarding flights, aircraft, airlines and airport services, and applications that support both airport operations and consumers, can be a real drain  on IT resources. 

And most importantly, cloud technology can enable airports to take customer service to new heights.

Flight information by cloud
The use of cloud services to provide information to airport Flight Information Display systems (FIDS) boards/screens or online will ensure that the data shown is more accurate and consistent. 

Indeed, by partnering with a cloud service provider who specialises in flight information, adjustments to inbound data feeds are addressed quickly, time zone shifts are routinely handled, and nuances in the data and corner cases are considered thoroughly and managed practically. 

Knowing that the flight information is accurate and reliable is critical to travellers, and their family and friends.

Another benefit to consumers is the high availability of information – even during power outages. When regional storms hit, flights are delayed  or cancelled and power outages can disrupt servers. This means that  when consumers need reliable flight information the most, it may  not be available. 

By pushing this information to a cloud provider where it is housed in a secure, power-redundant facility, with high availability built into the hardware infrastructure, airports can ensure their customers still receive the data they need, when they need it the most.

Finally, with the plethora of consumer-facing properties that airports have today – from FIDS boards, gate information displays (GIDS) and kiosks, to desktop websites, mobile websites, and apps – it is critical to  consumers that the flight and airport information they view across all devices is consistent. 

Consistency goes hand in hand with reliability – and differences in information cause doubt and frustration. Airports that use an airport-specific cloud as the single repository of flight data for all these platforms can be assured that consumers view the same information no matter  where they look.

Optimising resources
Beyond customer service, cloud technology ramps up IT efficiency.  When considering a cloud solution, there are two types of cloud providers available to airports – standard providers and specialty providers.

Standard providers offer secure facilities with well-maintained  servers loaded with virtualisation software for hosting flight and airport data and applications.

Specialty providers offer the same hardware as a service solution but also offer applications for managing the flight and airport data. Each option can help improve efficiency.

Standard cloud providers
There are a number of standard cloud providers that airports can employ – Amazon, Verizon/Terremark, Savvis, and Rackspace – which are all used by businesses across various industries. 

Working with standard cloud providers enables airports to achieve  key benefits. For example, they can lower IT capital costs by reducing the number of hardware and software purchases made to support standard operations and, in addition, redundancy and high availability. 

Also, lower IT operational costs are often achieved, as there is no  need to maintain a secure data centre, upkeep servers, or perform upgrades and security patches to operating systems. 

Along with cost reduction, airports can better handle peak  demand periods with the flexible server capacity offered by standard  cloud providers.

These peak demand periods often occur at heavy travel times or when poor weather conditions cause significant flight delays and cancellations, resulting in unusually high requests for information from operational software as well as their consumer facing properties.

Airport-specific cloud
While the benefits of using a standard cloud provider are meaningful to airports, their services do not alleviate some of the more resource intense work performed by airport IT departments.

These departments are challenged with managing highly dynamic information, such as flight data, which must be pushed to applications throughout the airport in order to enable operations teams, airline personnel, and consumers to make informed decisions. 

Even if this data – and the applications that consume, normalise, aggregate, store and push it out to decision support systems and consumer-facing properties – are moved to a standard cloud, airport IT departments must still manage it and maintain the applications.

The good news though, is that a few airport-specific cloud providers not only host flight data, along with aircraft and airline information, but also provide the software tools to manage it as a service. 

These providers can even go so far as to receive flight data from multiple third-party feeds – such as airlines and the FAA – and then normalise, aggregate and store it.

In addition, they can react quickly to changes in these feeds or how they are processed  – add/remove third-party feeds, update airline listings, and modify time zone conversions, for instance.

Ultimately, these specialty providers push the aggregated information out to various airport decision support systems and customer-facing properties – all using standard formatted feeds.

Working with airport-specific cloud providers drives the following industry-particular benefits for airports. Greater IT operational costs are avoided because providers are handling all third-party flight data feeds.  The resources typically required to manage the formatting and content changes to existing data feeds are no longer on the shoulders of the airport IT department.

Further benefits include ease of information access and delivery. Obtaining flight data through the cloud means a single repository of information can be used across multiple platforms. 

Since so many airport decision support systems and consumer-facing properties use and display flight data, it is important from a consistency and simplicity perspective to use the same data from the same repository to populate all systems. 

Airport IT departments have widespread responsibilities – from wiring ticketing kiosks to supporting the air traffic control tower systems to ensuring parking fee transactions are PCI compliant. 

By outsourcing the responsibilities associated with flight and  airport information to a cloud service – particularly an airport-specific  cloud service that manages this data as a service – airports can  alleviate their load and reallocate resources to focus on more  strategic initiatives.

The cost savings and customer service benefits associated with cloud services are significant – resulting in an investment that is mutually advantageous for airports and their constituencies.

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