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CIO interview: Brian Roche, director of IT, George Best Belfast City Airport

Data analytics, the internet of things and open source software are central to the Northern Irish airport’s aim to create a seamless, tech-enabled journey for passengers

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When Brian Roche was appointed director of IT at George Best Belfast City Airport (BCA) in November 2019, it was a first for him personally and the business.

An experienced IT professional who had previously worked in consulting and in senior roles for technology firms, Roche took his first IT leadership position in an end-user business. His appointment was also the first time that BCA had a technology chief reporting to the board rather than just an IT manager.

Roche recognises it was a big step for him and the airport. “Nowadays, it’s vital that you have somebody who has the technology skills who is sitting on the executive team, reporting to the board and getting the buy-in to make the required improvements for the business,” he says.

More than two years later and Roche is relishing the opportunity. “It dishes up interesting challenges,” he says. “There are lots of things that we’re looking to constantly improve, from fighting cyber threats to boosting internal processes, making platforms more robust and delivering excellent customer service.”

Not long after joining BCA, Roche found himself managing IT for an airport during a major socio-economic crisis: the coronavirus pandemic. So, what have the past two years been like?

“It’s been very busy,” says Roche, adding that BCA had to deal with significant challenges. Airline Flybe – which represented 80% of the airport’s routes and 67% of its passengers – collapsed at the start of the pandemic. Around the same time, Northern Ireland went into lockdown. Roche used this time to work on a range of projects.

“We worked really hard,” he says. “I saw this as an opportunity to make some major changes in terms of deploying new infrastructure, doing migration projects, and making important decisions, such as relocating an internal datacentre. We also rebuilt our website and added a whole load of functionality.”

“My personal aspiration is to have the smartest regional airport in the UK within five years”

Brian Roche, George Best Belfast City Airport

Roche’s close relationship with the executive team was crucial. He says all the improvements his team have made have been business-case-led. Roche was able to in-source engineers from an external provider and has run multiple tenders, including for improvements to IT service management, which included the purchase of Nutanix Enterprise Cloud.

“I want the airport to be as smart as possible,” he says. “My personal aspiration is to have the smartest regional airport in the UK within five years. Achieving that aim depends on budgets, of course – and it’s a very challenging time for aviation. But it’s interesting doing those changes on a shoestring.”

Roche says much of his effort in the longer term is likely to be directed towards implementing open-source technologies rather than buying off-the-shelf applications. That approach is already paying dividends, he adds.

“You can achieve a lot doing that. And open source works from a cyber security perspective as well, because the applications tend to not be exposed to cyber security concerns because they are being produced for the generic good of the software community,” he says.

“So, we want the airport to be as smart as possible. And over the next five to 10 years, I want to have an IT department that doesn’t negatively impact the company’s earnings. We will strive to become self-funding.”

Developing a transformation strategy 

Roche, who on a day-to-day basis is tasked with enhancing BCA’s IT services while also reining in costs, has already made significant progress towards his long-term aims.

After joining the organisation in late 2019, he says it took about three months to sort out the trajectory of the company’s digital transformation journey across people, process and technology. His strategy right now involves five key priorities.

One of these is delivering customer experience via technology – to both internal and external customers. Another priority is cyber security and certification, both in terms of governance and compliance. “We’ve made huge strides in technology, policy and process, and the education of our people,” he says.

Thirdly, Roche refers to the importance of developing alternative revenue streams by IT. “We are looking at becoming an internal service provider to provide connectivity to business partners on-site for better value and better service,” he says.

Finally, Roche draws attention to two other areas: the requirement to simplify and consolidate IT infrastructure and software, and the need to become a data-driven enterprise that uses analytics and artificial intelligence.

Creating a better infrastructure

Roche says the IT simplification and consolidation process at the airport is now complete. This included the purchase of the Nutanix Enterprise Cloud hyper-converged platform to drive efficiencies. As part of this process, he has reduced the IT operations budget by about 40% and is delivering an enhanced service to users.

Having implemented hyper-converged technologies in some of his previous IT leadership positions, Roche thought the Nutanix platform would provide a robust basis for infrastructure change. After a thorough tendering process, he selected Nutanix and implementation partner Leaf IT to deliver the hyper-converged platform.

The airport implemented two Nutanix Enterprise Cloud clusters in March 2021, and each runs the Nutanix AHV hypervisor. Roche says the benefits of adopting a hyper-converged approach are clear – the Nutanix platform can deal with the airport’s production requirements at half the cost of the legacy environment.

As part of the migration to a hyper-converged infrastructure, which took just three weeks to complete, the airport also implemented Prism Central, Nutanix’s centralised management interface. This application has helped BCA to move from a costly managed-service model to in-house provision.

The success of the airport’s migration to a hyper-converged infrastructure has helped to reassert Roche’s belief in the cloud. “My view of the future is very much hybrid clouds with the support of a multicloud approach,” he says. “If I can get the management and maintenance of infrastructure and services delivered to me, then that’s what I’ll do.”

Making the most of data

When it comes to being a data-driven organisation, Roche says the airport already has a couple of internet of things (IoT) platforms in place, one for camera and vision analytics, and another that supports risk management and the movement of people and devices around the airport.

He gives the example of using the risk management technology for security and the perimeter checks that take place around the airport, which involve specialist employees taking a five-mile walk.

“We have NFC touch points all the way around,” says Roche, describing how the IoT has become embedded within the airport’s processes.

“So, they take a phone – which includes the risk management platform – and they touch on the NFC points, and we can prove that they have walked the perimeter and prove that anybody who goes on to the airfield is tracked for safety purposes. And when we can prove these checks have been done, we’re able to reduce our insurance costs,” he says.

“The beauty of the technology and the app is that if, for example, there is a hole in the perimeter that would impact our compliance score, then the workers can take a geo-located photo of that situation, send it on, then a job will automatically be raised with the facilities management team.”

Roche’s data-led efforts also involve a new focus on open-source technologies, such as implementing a data lake for structured and unstructured information, using analytics tool Apache Spark. His team is re-using elements of the airport’s old IT infrastructure, which has been usurped by the Nutanix deployment, to support this new data lake.

Improving customer experiences

The airport’s digital transformation efforts continue apace. Roche’s team is investigating how they can use camera analytics to run in-depth passenger and traffic-flow management. “If there are areas of congestion in certain parts of the building, we can send somebody there to assist with social distancing,” he says.

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They are also looking at measuring mass compliance, which involves understanding the bag profile of customers, such as hand luggage, heavy backpacks, and the average amount of luggage per passenger. “That information helps us, and our airline partners, prepare for both resourcing and fuelling for trips,” he says.

“For instance, we know on certain routes that we will have an average of between 0.3 and 0.4 bags per passenger. So, the data allows us to undertake precise planning and makes the whole boarding process much more efficient.”

Another example of smart data management includes the introduction of digital wayfinding – all the gate and directional screens at the airport automatically update passengers on where they should go, depending on the status of international arrivals. In fact, Roche says they are currently working through a list of about 40 digital transformation projects.

“My perspective was very much about breaking processes down into different areas to consider how we can make the customer experience better,” he says. “My vision for the airport is to create a touchless, seamless journey from your car to the plane.”

Looking to drive further change

Just over two years into his IT leadership role at BCA, Roche says there is a lot more he wants to achieve – and that is partly because of the fast-changing nature of digital and data.

“Every new day comes with a new capability,” he says. “My big push over the next three years will definitely be on the analytical side of the business and that data-driven perspective. Because what you can do with automation, and insights from analytics, is to make better decisions as a business – and that is so important.”

Having already implemented a range of technologies in his digital transformation of the airport’s processes, Roche expects to introduce many more systems and services. Now it’s just a case of finding the right use cases for the right technologies.

“There are lots of process efficiencies that you can get by automating areas of the business,” he says. “So, whether it’s robotic process automation or a bit of artificial intelligence, what we need to get is the real truth and understand the impact on our business.”

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