HPE brings ‘fault tolerant network’ to Gatwick Airport

This network upgrade project, if unsuccessful, could have wreaked havoc for both Gatwick and HPE.
Gatwick transitions from a network well past it’s expiry date to an all singing and dancing ‘fault tolerant network’

Gatwick and HPE alike have upheld a clear focus on ‘intelligent edge’ and luckily for them, the gate has officially been declared open. Hypothetically, let’s say you are an experienced open-heart surgeon; now, how confidently do you think you could perform open heart surgery on a patient while they are running. Sounds impossible, right? Well, that’s what HPE managing director, Marc Walters, likened the Gatwick network upgrade to. NCN has decided to embark on a journey to find out why and how this project was both vital and a success, and what it ultimately means for the future of Gatwick’s network infrastructure.

Gatwick Airport has officially completed its 18-month migration to a new network infrastructure from HPE and Aruba Networks. It’s set to boost customer-facing Wi-Fi to 30mbps download speeds, while giving the airport the infrastructure to adopt technologies like IoT and predictive analytics.

Speaking out about Gatwick and its ‘old by design’ network – which dated back 15 years to the day of BAA – Gatwick Airport CIO Cathal Corcoran acknowledges that the modernisation of the network at the airport was his number one priority upon joining the company. Cathal says, “On my first day, this issue was brought to my attention, as arguably it needed doing a couple of years before.

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

Notably, the purpose of the new network is not solely to serve operations at the airport, such as passengers, bags, and planes, but rather the network installed by HPE at Gatwick is set to act as an IT provider for all retailers and restaurants across its’ two terminals.

Expiry date

Upon appointment, Cathal was quick to point out that the existing network ‘had served its time and was getting to the end of life.’

This new network deal was by no means a quick fix, but an arduous process with an investment of £11m needed to carry out the update. Designed and implemented by HPE and its subsidiary Aruba, the all singing and dancing network is said to bring promise of stabilising network services for operational staff, boosting Wi-Fi to 30mbps download speeds for its 14m annual passengers, as well as allowing the airport to take advantage of modern technologies like IoT, passenger flow analytics and facial recognition.

Initially on a five-year contract, the network will continue to be maintained and managed on a daily basis by the HPE Pointnext team.

“The deal length is five years, but I fully expect it to go on,” Cathal says. “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.”

But that’s not the only plans Cathal has in order to bring Gatwick back up-to-speed, explaining that 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.

With a wider capability, Cathal also hopes that the network will be able to assist with improving analytics – assessing passenger flow based on smart phone locations with heat maps to identify queueing times and performance improvement opportunities.

The airport is also said to be looking into machine learning and facial recognition technology to bolster security. Arguably it could also use this to better inform gate staff of late running passengers and send notifications via apps.

Migration

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The whole project was completed in March 2018 after just 18 months.

The whole project was completed in March 2018 after just 18 months, all while the airport remained 100% 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 adds.

The vendor even signed an output-based deal, which meant the sum would only be paid when the project was completed — and to Gatwick’s expectations.

HPE had only a four-hour window in the middle of the night for which the works could be carried out, and that was also limited to just three or four days (if lucky) a week. In order for the 18-month target to be remotely, possible HPE had to pump in a huge amount of manpower – 10,000 hours to be exact, switching out 40/50 access switches a night.

Marc Waters, managing director for UK and Ireland at HPE, comments on the time frame of the project saying, “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.”

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