Gatwick 'future proofs' its network with HPE rollout

© Gatwick
© Gatwick

The busy airport is laying the infrastructure to boost its customer-facing Wi-Fi, adopt IoT and stabilise its network for staff operations

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Gatwick Airport has completed an 18-month migration to a new network infrastructure from HPE and Aruba Networks, boosting customer-facing Wi-Fi to 30mbps download speeds and giving the airport the infrastructure to adopt technologies like IoT and predictive analytics.

Speaking to Computerworld UK last week, Gatwick Airport CIO Cathal Corcoran said that modernising the network at the airport was his number one priority upon joining the company two years ago, and that it was certainly the highest profile project on his portfolio.

"On my first day this was brought to my attention, as arguably it needed doing a couple of years before," he said.

"If this had gone wrong my tenure would have been a lot shorter at Gatwick I think," he added.

The new network doesn't just serve operations at the airport - passengers, bags and planes - but Gatwick also acts as an IT provider for all of the retailers and restaurants across its two terminals.

Old by design

According to Corcoran the previous network, which dated back 15 years to the days of BAA ownership was "old by design".

"It had served its time and was getting to end of life," he said.

The new network deal, worth £11 million, was designed and implemented by HPE and its subsidiary Aruba, with the promise of stabilising network services for operational staff, boosting Wi-Fi to 30mbps download speeds for its 14 million annual passengers as well as allowing the airport to take advantage of modern technologies like IoT, passenger flow analytics and facial recognition.

The network will continue to be maintained and managed day-to-day by the HPE Pointnext team, initially on a five year contract. "The deal length is five years but I fully expect it to go on," Corcoran said. "The deal is network and Wi-Fi, IoT and helping us move to the cloud, so there are many agreements, but this is a long-term partnership with HPE and we are very much all in."

In terms of the more advanced capabilities this network will enable, Corcoran says he is looking at 40 uses for IoT across the airport, from deploying sensors from the ramps for real-time operational analytics to measuring waste bin levels, the occupancy of check-in desks, as well as table availability or pond water levels.

He also wants to use more analytics to assess passenger flow based on smart phone locations and heat maps to identify queueing times and performance improvement opportunities.

Finally, the airport is looking into machine learning and facial recognition technology to bolster security. It could also use this to better inform gate staff of late running passengers and send notifications via apps.

Migration

The whole project was completed in in March 2018 after just 18 months, all while the airport remained 100 percent operational, and the project had to be completed without any downtime or instability.

"Running a network upgrade into critical national infrastructure, if you get that wrong you end up all over the news, so a project with this amount of work and this risk profile, not everyone is up for that, but HPE was," Corcoran said.

The vendor even signed an output-based deal, which means it will only be paid when the project was completed to Gatwick's expectations.

The migration work could only be done while the airport wasn't operational, providing four hour windows in the middle of the night - two hours for work and two for rollback - and even that was just for three or four days a week. In order to hit the 18-month target this meant a huge amount of manpower, 10,000 hours to be exact, switching out forty to fifty access switches a night.

Marc Waters, managing director for UK and Ireland at HPE said: "Transitioning from old to new networks while keeping the world’s most efficient runway operating is like performing open heart surgery on a patient while he is running."

Waters added that this project falls under HPE's current focus on 'intelligent edge'. According to Waters this consists of: "An underlying network based on high degrees of connectivity and high levels of security to enable data to be collected and understood to give insight for operational efficiency and also improving customer and employee engagement."

Priorities

The drivers for change for Corcoran were threefold, firstly was obsolescence. "It was starting to creak," he said.

Then there was the security: "We wanted a new network to enhance our defences and add more and we needed a next-generation IT network to do that," he said.

Then, what he describes as "probably the highest value-adding angle" was helping the airport entities it supports adopt cutting edge technology that bottlenecks in the old network wouldn't allow, such as new point of sale systems or customer analytics.

Now that the network is live, the main aim for Corcoran and the Pointnext team is stability and reliability. "The metrics for me are that the campus network has to be four or five 9s and P1 and P2 [incidents] need to be non existent." He said they have yet to have a P1 or P2 severity incident since going live.

"We needed a much more resilient, self-healing and fault tolerant network," Corcoran added.

Technology

In terms of the new stack, Gatwick now has thousands of terabytes/second switching capacity, hundreds of VPN instances for multi-tenant solutions and scalability up to tens of 12900E switches, hundreds of HPE 5930 and Aruba 2930M switches, to support thousands of 1G ports and hundreds of 10G/40G ports.

The IT team now has much better monitoring capabilities too. "We can predict where something goes wrong and the idea is to avoid issues in the first place and getting recovery times down to minutes or hours, instead of days," Corcoran said.

Monitoring is provided through Splunk operational KPI dashboards, but Corcoran said the airport is running "two flavours of everything" now, including firewalls from Palo Alto Networks and Fortinet, endpoint security from Crowdstrike and Darktrace for network security

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