By Isabel Franke-Chaudet
Digital transformation is fast becoming the centre of discussions surrounding the future of Air Traffic Management (ATM), with the introduction of virtual centres and digital towers and potentially ATM Data Service Providers highlighting the importance of data management.
For example, Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) are increasingly looking to use private clouds or data centres as the foundation of their infrastructure and as an enabler to delivering the ANSPs digital transformation strategy.
Maximising the benefits of Future ATM operational and technology concepts will rely on the control and management of data that can be easily shared across operational sites and across national borders. A single data centre is one way to simplify the management of that data, through the centralisation of the ATM software applications, as well as where data is stored, managed, and disseminated.
Although the use of data centres for hosting applications is common in the IT sector and even other high-integrity industries (e.g. the financial sector), it is unproven in ATM. Many ANSPs and their software suppliers are still getting accustomed to the complexities involved. The fact is that today many ATM software applications are still designed by suppliers to be bound to specific hardware.
This is exacerbated by the need to manage updates and patches to data centre infrastructure and supporting applications without impacting services. In addition, the safety-related nature of ATM results in a more cautious approach heightened by concerns with data security and data privacy.
The immaturity of data centres in ATM, the need to ensure resilience and the criticality of timely data distribution makes it essential for forward thinking ANSPs to develop a solid, future-proof strategic view of what services the technology platform will support and a business case to evidence the decision. Together these will enable a successful transformation and will drive what is required of data centres to support the services and wider business goals.
Business goals could include harmonisation of operations across an ANSP, provision of contingency operations across centres, dealing with traffic growth and capacity issues, outgrowing existing infrastructure or the need to replace outdated systems. Or it might be dealing with future proofing and positioning a business to provide more innovative services, such as introducing plug and play capability to make it easier to consume new market offerings.
Any business case should be supported by an understanding of the risks involved. Answering questions about the use of data centres is important, such as:
- Is constructing and running a data centre owned by the ANSP or the use of a third-party outlet the most appropriate approach?
- Which suppliers have mature applications that work in a virtualised environment?
- Which applications will be installed on the data centre and what is the migration plan?
- What inter-site networking is required to ensure appropriate bandwidth?
- What mode of operation will be used (active-active vs active-passive)?
- What back-up/contingency plans need to be in place?
- How is resilience ensured?
- In particular how will the network connecting the data centre to the rest of the business be designed (redundancy, ease of access and latency)?
- How will the transition be managed, noting that interfaces with exiting and legacy systems need to be ensured?
- How will the coordination of incidents and problem resolution be managed between data centre and operational site?
Understanding the benefits that data centres can provide to your business and developing a strategy that considers the key risks will ensure a pathway to success. In 2018, Helios and Egis successfully supported UkSATSE in developing such a strategic plan for their future use of data centres.