CIO interview: Guus Dekkers, Airbus CIO

Guus Dekkers became CIO of Airbus and fighter aircraft firm EADS in 2008 and is responsible for all information systems and technology at the companies

Guus Dekkers became CIO of aircraft company Airbus and fighter aircraft manufacturer EADS in 2008. He is responsible for all information systems and technology at both companies and his time is split 70-30 between Airbus and EADS.

Dekkers makes up to 250 flights per year, with 80% of that split between the different Airbus sites in Hamburg and Toulouse: “It’s not a 40-hour week!” 

Dekkers’ role is to provide high-level strategy. “I’m not purely there to fulfil customer demands, but to ensure we have the right strategy in place and infrastructure elements to do an efficient job, which involves trying to consolidate the ways we work.”

Airbus spends more than €500m a year on IT, with one third going to future investments and two thirds to operating costs. “We got there, not by lobbying for more investment money, but by shrinking operating costs."

The key to keeping costs down has been flexibility in contracts, Dekkers says. “I’d always try to avoid an outsourcing situation where we allocate certain things to someone and that puts us in chains. We’re more interested in out-tasking, where you take a certain activity which you can control and try to commoditise it. 

"The key is to make it reversible, so you can easily give it to another organisation after a couple of years. All our contracts have strong reversibility clauses."

“We wouldn’t engage in a 10-year project because we don’t know where the technology is going to be. Most people do it because they believe they are not good at something and so should outsource the problem – which doesn’t really address those problems. The majority of contracts will be three years, with a one- or two-year extension.”

Consolidating to cut costs

“Airbus has a strong history of having merged from different organisations, which has been reflected in our applications set-up. The strategy now is strongly about consolidation,” Dekkers says.

Part of that plan was the signing of the HP Performance Optimised Datacentres (PODs) four years ago. Each POD contains servers, storage, networking software, management and integrated power and cooling.

“IT for engineering was a scattered solution all over the place, we worked with local providers in R&D, with 10 teraflops there and three here, for example. All of which were configured differently when running large scale computing,” he says.

“PODs are not a strategy on their own, but one of the elements we have to deliver ICT through high performance computing infrastructure. That is only one element. We have some additional engineering. As we saw a growth in high performance computing demands, we saw a cost explosion.”

There wasn’t space to build a datacentre and it would have been too expensive, time-consuming and inflexible, he says. The answer was to ask suppliers to come up with a container solution. IBM, T-Systems, Bull and Sun were part of the bid, but Airbus decided to go with HP.

“We have seen substantial savings, of course with hardware we are always getting more performance for the same money, but even if we take out the classic Moore’s law theory, the savings are still substantial. We have far less handling and the company has seen double-digits of millions in operation costs, reducing costs by around 30%-40%.” 

The contract will be up soon, and Dekkers says he won’t hesitate in moving to another supplier that offers better price and value.

He is adamant that short contracts are crucial in such a rapidly changing industry as technology. “In this environment I don’t thing long-term contracts work. We need flexibility to adapt and take advantage of new market offerings.”

The PODs are an example of something which will be very simple to replace, he says: “It’s just a case of ordering a crane and asking HP to pick up their container. First we would put a new one in and then move the old one away. Then we’d be up and running with new one in two weeks. 

“The PODs are not on my radar screen, it’s not something I need to be occupied with every five minutes.”

Dekkers’ strategy with EADS is slightly different, as data cannot be shared between different environments for EADS’ military contracts, due to national security concerns.

The primary drive for consolidation is related to infrastructure, as 90% of applications are around national restricted data and must therefore run in multiple instances.

“We can do it in the sense of infrastructure – such as having a common help desk, for example – but we can’t go beyond that, as we need to make sure the data is 500% separated.”

Cloudy notions

Dekkers discards the idea of using public cloud outright. “Why would a company of our size use a public cloud? If you look at the public cloud it’s just a network of servers and storage. Ours is huge, with four petabytes of storage.

“All the methodologies Google uses we can do on our own. Their business model is based on highly compressed data, so if you upload a song and many others have uploaded the same song, using  intelligent source engines they can identify duplicates and replace your upload with a pointer to that single file. Of course we wouldn’t do this with songs – but other duplicate files.”

The other big reason for not using the cloud is security, he says. “For us intellectual property is most important so we are not going in that direction.”

He is equally dismissive of the notion of using a private cloud: “The term 'private cloud' is the most stupid I’ve heard. 

"What is the private cloud? Around 20 years ago it was the local area network. So I go crazy when hear all these guys talk about investment in a private cloud. I guarantee all reasonably-sized private companies have had a private cloud already for some time!

“The public cloud is another story, but the private cloud is just media hype.”

Most of the Airbus’s IT activities, such as looking after servers, are done by using third parties such as HP, T-systems, and Capgemini. But Airbus has a core IT team of 1,004 people who deal with architectural design and assuring the evolvement of the ICT infrastructure environment. It buys several million pounds' worth of services every year, says Dekkers

The structure of Airbus is roughly divided into the four areas of design and engineering; manufacturing; sales and support; and HR and financial functions. Within those areas there are between 100-250 IT people working closely with each function to understand the business, he says. 

“Their job is to understand and challenge those areas of the business so they can translate that into ICT solutions.”  

At the moment the challenge is to make sure IT absorbs the growth of Airbus without increasing the budget, he says. 

“We need to reduce operating costs, but absolutely defend future investments – it would be wrong to allow the investment in the future to deteriorate. Financially, that would be an easy area to kill – but then you are effectively killing the future of the business.”

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