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Gatwick Airport completes £15m network upgrade to support expansion plans

Gatwick’s new network promises to drive IoT applications, offer free passenger Wi-Fi and provide robust connectivity across the airport campus

Gatwick Airport has completed a £15m, 18-month project to replace its legacy network with resilient infrastructure from HPE and Aruba.

The upgrade improves reliability and is being used to provide networking to more than 250 on-site businesses, 30,000 staff and 45 million annual passengers.

Gatwick is the largest single-runway airport in the world. Its latest financial report shows that passenger numbers increased from 40.9 million in March 2016 to 44.1 million in March 2017. Over the past eight years, passenger volume has increased by 40%.

In a recent interview with Computer Weekly, the airport’s CIO, Cathal Corcoran, said it already has “55 planes an hour taking off and landing”, but he expects continued growth in passenger numbers.

With new, larger aircraft such as the Airbus A380 able to carry more passengers, passenger volume is expected to increase, putting extra load on IT to support airport operations, from check-in, baggage handling and security, to the airport’s on-site retail businesses. “We will optimise our infrastructure to provide growth opportunities,” he said.

According to HPE, the legacy network, which dates back to when BAA operated the airport, provided a limited number of data paths to communicate between its constituent components.

The new architecture is a fully meshed design, which HPE said provides 10 times the number of links for data to traverse the campus. By removing bottlenecks and potential single points of failure, and utilising a backbone based on many multiples of 40Gbps connections, Gatwick’s new network represents a step change in resilience and performance, said HPE.

Networking equipment deployed includes HPE 12900E core switches, HPE 5930 top-of-rack switches and Aruba 2930M access switches.

The deployment team had just four hours a night – when the airport is at its quietest, prior to the first departures and arrivals in the morning – to upgrade network segments.

Corcoran said the team replaced between 40 and 50 network switches per night. “We had a four-hour window to get everything working, which included two hours to roll back if it didn’t work,” he said.

Any failure would have a knock-on effect throughout the day. He said 96% of the upgrades were completed without issues, but when problems did occur, the implementation team was able to roll back to the legacy network.

Along with providing the network infrastructure for the airport and businesses that operate out of Gatwick, the upgrade will support Gatwick’s expansion plans going forward.

“We needed a much more resilient, self-healing and fault-tolerant network, and one that is capable of handling future technologies that process considerably more data. HPE’s combined network offering provides this and more, as it ultimately supports our vision of an IT infrastructure for a decade,” said Corcoran.

Application areas being considered for the new network include internet of things (IoT) sensors to measure parameters such as waste bin levels and occupancy of check-in desks, free Wi-Fi for passengers, high-definition surveillance cameras, detection of passenger flow based on smartphone locations, plus reliable Wi-Fi services for airlines to reconcile bags with passengers.

There are also opportunities to use machine learning and facial recognition to bolster security or develop passenger journey mapping so gate staff can track late-running passengers and send notifications via mobile apps.

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