Welcome to the latest episode of Check-in, where we’re discussing ‘wide area networks’, or ‘WAN’ as they say in the IT industry. WANs are used to link multiple sites (for example businesses and universities) and are different to the ‘local area networks’ that we have in our homes.
In a nutshell, it’s all about users being able to share resources and communicate more efficiently, so to help us get a better understanding of how WANs can make an impact at airports, Vanderlande’s Darren Durham joins us on the line.
A – Hello, and welcome to Check-in… theVanderlande airports podcast. I’m Andy Lynch, and it’s good to have you on board once more.
In this episode, we’re casting our net further – geographically and digitally speaking – as we will be discussing ‘wide area networks’, or ‘WAN’ as they say in the IT industry.
In its most basic sense, a wide area network is used to link multiple sites, for example businesses and universities, so that users can share resources and communicate more efficiently.
Compare that to the ‘local area networks’ that we have in our homes – and most of us will be familiar with.
To help us get a better understanding of what a wide area network is, and how they can make an impact at airports, I’m delighted to be joined by Vanderlande’s Darren Durham.
So, let’s collect him from our virtual departures lounge – Darren, hello, thanks for joining us on Check-in today.
D – Thanks for having me, I’m delighted to be here.
A – And tell us about your own situation, Darren, where are you joining us from today.
D – So, I’m in the UK, like everybody else in the middle of… I don’t know how many – third lockdown – working from home. Historically, I’ve always worked from home and travelled the world to see our customers. It’s quite nice to be home and spending time with the family. Equally, it’d be nice to get back out and spend time with colleagues and customers again.
A – OK, and touching on the professional world there, tell our listeners a little bit more about your professional duties Darren, your role and responsibilities with Vanderlande.
D – Yeah, certainly. So, I’m a product manager, within Vanderlande. And my main focus is our passenger software solutions, and one such application is our PAX Multiplex screening platform. And that basically connects X-ray and CT machines together, and provides our airport operators with a common user interface for screening security items and baggage – predominantly at the checkpoint.
A – And how long have you been with the company Darren?
D – So, I’ve been with Vanderlande for two-and-a-half years, approximately. I’ve been in airport security for a number of years now, starting in 2008. And previous to that, I was at Optosecurity, who were acquired by Vanderlande three years ago. So, I have quite a long history with this product and other products within this environment.
A – OK, and before we get into the main topic for today’s discussion, let’s maybe set a little bit of context. What’s your perspective on how security has changed – particularly at airports – over the past decade?
D – That’s an interesting question, and I guess it really depends on where you sit within the whole process. From a personal point of view, and notwithstanding the technology itself which is continuously evolving and improving. Interesting for this conversation is general networking really. I’ve seen a huge move towards integrating and connecting all of the devices within the airport together. That started, as I said earlier, I started my journey in aviation security in 2008, and I came from an IT background. And I was networking normal devices, servers and printers, and things like that in the corporate world. And had the opportunity to join a company that worked in aviation security, and my primary role at that time was to look at networking X-ray machines, in order to centralise management and reporting. And that really hasn’t stopped since I started all that time ago. But now we’re finding that they’re not lots of individual networks, but a convergence of all products within that aviation security model into an integrated and centralised solution. And some of the issues we see now are open architecture – so how do we connect devices from different vendors together, and how do we make it secure, and that’s really important. So, going from standalone devices to networked devices, we now need to concentrate on how to make those networks secure. So, really for me, of course technology has evolved, we’re seeing CT now – 3D images rather than 2D images – giving infinite views. But for me, it’s really this system of systems integrating all these devices, networking them all together to really give the airport operators the value and the choice in what they purchase and what they operate. And all of this really has a positive effect on the traffic and the passenger experience. If we can streamline the process, it becomes more seamless and more pleasant for our passengers.
A – OK, very important, as always. But I think that brings us very nicely to our topic for today, which is the wide area network or ‘WAN’. So, tell us specifically Darren, what are we talking about when we talk about a wide area network?
D – So, when we talk about wide area networks, I think it’s important to point out at this stage that it’s not a new thing, it’s not a new concept. Companies – as well as airports – have been connecting various sites together for some time. But, you know, the basic premise of this is that we’re connecting devices, be it computers, servers, printers, mobile phones, we’re connecting them over a wide geographical area. I guess one very simple example of that is what we’re all doing right now. We have our home network – we have all our devices connected on our home network – but then we might for work purposes connect to a centralised intranet, or email server. So, at that point, we are using a wide area network. The internet is, effectively, a wide area network. Our children are streaming music content, streaming video content. What we’re talking about is always a connected environment. And as I say, that’s been the case for many years, where if you were working in a remote site you would be connected to a head office for your email, or for various applications that you use. And I guess that evolves into things like Cloud-based computing when we talk about that. So, what we’re doing really with our products and services is we’re leveraging that technology that’s been around for some time to offer our applications across them, and of course, it’s not a case of being able to do that until the technology is mature enough, allowing you to do that, and what I mean by that is when wide area networks first came out, and bandwidth was limited and they were slow… and they weren’t time critical. So, if you were to send an email, it didn’t matter if it took a little while to get there, it would get there. But when we look at the kinds of things we’re doing, screening an X-ray image from a remote site, that needs to be quick. That needs to not slow down the process. So, it’s taken time for us to get the kind of bandwidths and the circuits required, but we’re there and it’s real now.
A – So, effectively this is the here and now. How has this been put into practice at airports already?
D – As I said, larger airport operators have been connected to remote sites for some time, and maybe for more… for things like email and things like that, but what we’ve done is taken our screening platform, which historically has worked over a local area network, so within the confines of a building or several buildings. And we’ve pushed that out across a wider geographic location. What we’re able to do is exchange data between sites, exchange images between sites. So, we’ve actually deployed systems firstly for trial and pilots, and now we have systems in operation today using wide area network technology.
A – OK, and I think you touched on a few things earlier, but can you go into more detail about the type of systems that rely on wide area networks?
D – Actually, we rely on wide area networks for everything! We couldn’t do what we’re doing now. We couldn’t connect to our workplaces without wide area networks. If we look at the world we live in today, everything happens because of that infrastructure in place. Again, what I’m saying is that we’re leveraging those networks for bigger and better things all the time. So, in the instance of our solutions, we use the connectivity to connect devices. If we take an example of a main airport hub… and then say that operator has several remote airports… we’re connecting devices in order to take X-ray or CT images from the central site, or from the remote site, and actually send them to a group of screeners who are then going to analyse that data and make a decision based on what they see. Basically, what we can do is pool resources to have a centralised function within an airport, or an airport operator environment.
A – Do you think this will become more widespread? I mean, I don’t have the statistics in front of me of how many airports run that type of system or setup, but do you think it will become more widespread? Particularly the example of remote screening you gave?
D – Yes, I do. We’re personally seeing a lot of interest, so we’re expanding on what we call remote screening. If you travelled through an airport today, you would typically see a number of staff at an airport checkpoint doing various roles. And one of the main roles of course is screening the items, luggage of the passenger, for prohibited items. That’s a very much one-to-one correlation with the screening device, the X-ray or the CT device, and what we’ve done is we’ve decoupled that function from the lane and said: “well actually, you can do that from anywhere, essentially!” And the first deployments of its type were to take those individual screeners and place them into a centralised location, so a room that is well lit, is quiet, we always say that less distractions mean that ‘time on task’ is more accurate. So, decoupling the screener from the lane has taken some time to gain attention. There’s always early adopters in any kind of technology, but it’s taken some time, and we see remote screening or centralised image processing – as it’s also known – or image multiplex screening, as being a topic that’s discussed daily. Now, if you take that concept and say well, actually that group of screening staff no longer has to be within the walls of that airport terminal and could be anywhere else, then you open up the possibilities to screen in more than one location, from one screening room. It starts to say that you can pool the resources, you can screen multiple lanes from one location, there are infinite combinations of how you can do that operation. So, yes, in answer to your question, we see this as being adopted more and more. And it really needs to fit the profile of… does it make sense? Because all technology is great, but if it doesn’t make sense to the airport, or to the business it’s deployed in, then fine. So, typically wide area networking is good for multiple airport operators, sorry, airport operators with multiple sites. It’s also interesting if you want to screen at distance, or perhaps removing an operator from the checkpoint is one less touchpoint for the pandemic we see ourselves in today, where interaction with other people is a problem. And then I guess I see the other benefit of this is any other systems that are deployed for airport security or self-screening, can be done over wide area networking, so it does open up opportunities for many applications.
A – And I guess if I was an airport very interested in capitalising on using a wide area network, what would you say to me? What would be the difficulties? How would you talk me through the process? Is it an easy thing to do, or is there more complexity involved?
D – As I mentioned earlier, are the sites already networked? That already reduces the cost and complexity of implementing such a solution. And then, is the network actually setup to do such a thing, so do we have the requisite bandwidth? Is the environment – we talk in terms of ‘latency’, but what’s the time it takes to send from A to B and back again? It’s all those considerations. What is the fundamental technology… is it fibre optics? Is it DSL or lease line? So, there are many different technologies employed in wide area networking. Some countries, some regions have a better infrastructure than others. Some have wide deployments of fibre optics, for instance. If we were talking to a customer in one of those regions, then it’s a very easy conversation. Because, on order to scale up, to what we need to make this environment work is easier. If we are engaging with a customer that doesn’t have a wide area network, then there are a couple of approaches… you can involve a third-party partner, you can involve suppliers of the airport already, and then it’s really an exercise in understanding the requirements, and that might be the number of machines, the number of operators. The throughput of the lane, for instance, so how many items go through in an hourly period. Like with anything, the more data you generate… if you look at a pipe-like scenario, and if you want to push something down a pipe, if you’re trying to push too much down it, it gets stuck. And in this kind of environment, what you then get is… say, we’re talking today and we start jittering and we start dropping off… that may be a result of too many people, or too much going on in that network at any given time. Again, some customers have the benefit of being able to have a dedicated circuit for this kind of application. Others, we are going over public network infrastructure in a virtual private network, so effectively, we’re carving out a secure tunnel through the public infrastructure (through the web), and we’re encrypting that data in some way through that tunnel. So, there are many ways to achieve this, and the complexity really relates to the state of maturity of a customer or the infrastructure available in that country or region. But, there are ways around it, and there are plenty of different technologies we can use to deploy solutions over wide area networks.
A – Absolutely. And I guess it always comes back to those questions of… who is the airport, and what are they trying to achieve? I guess you could link anything of what you’ve just said to their own individual goals as well? So, they could take a small part of what you’re offering, or they could take the whole thing. So, I guess it’s really customisable, isn’t it? In line with an airport’s individual objectives.
D – It is, and you highlight a really important thing there. We are responding to a customer need, we are responding to their objectives, and that might be cost savings, that might be efficiency of staff and devices, for instance. Take one example, if I find it easy to recruit in this area, but not in another area, well maybe centralising that function in the area where I have easy access to staff, is a big driver. And that may not save them any money, but it may help with the recruitment process, with the staff retention process. All of those things are not often thought about. And of course, with anything like this, even with the best planning, is that you might be caught in a period of time where you don’t have enough screeners on for the queue of passengers coming your way, or equally, you may have too many screeners on and not enough passengers, and this is where these kind of technologies… where I can simply add a screener to the network, or to take a screener off and reallocate them to another function, starts to give a benefit. And, of course, the other really benefit is related to the operation, but less related to the staff, is all the management of the equipment and the reporting – operational or compliance reporting – by adding all of these devices into one network, it means I’ve got one place to go to… you know, simple functions like adding or removing a user, changing a configuration, running a report, all of these things – once centralised – actually means that I can do things easier. So, an example of that is when I joined this journey in 2008, all of these devices were literally plugged into power and sat standalone. So, if I needed to get data off a machine, I would wander to each of the machines. Now, if I’m a small airport, it would not be too much of an overhead. But if I have 150 X-ray devices over my real estate, then someone’s got a bit of walking to do, to pull the operational data. And then, once I’ve got that data, I’ve then got to pull it all together to compile a report. With a network system, and now we’re talking about a wider geographical location, I can have my administrators in one central location, pulling the data down and compiling those reports in one easy go. So, just to recap, I guess there’s the operational… you know, using my resources wisely and making sure that I’m able to scale the operation according to the passenger profile, but also the management and reporting aspect. All as one package becomes quite compelling I think.
A – Indeed. And if that’s the now, what about the future Darren? If you can have any comment about something we don’t quite know will happen. Do you scope for any further improvement in this particular field, and are there other technologies and concepts that there is a nice overlap with that you think will take airports even further?
D – I think in terms of aviation security, there is a big push towards simplifying interconnectivity between devices and vendors. And we term that as having an open architecture. So, the move towards open architecture will be the big push over the next few years. And what that really means is… all the vendors working together with the customers’ objectives in mind to create a ‘system of systems’ which interconnects and means that the sharing of data and whatever other information – or what they need to get out of that system – is straightforward. And everyone has a clear objective and goal to meet that. So, in terms of how we’ve done things in the past, we’ve done it individually, we’ve done it in cooperation with different vendors to come up with a system that connects to as many devices as we can. The open architecture is a set of principles and standards, which everyone works towards to make that integration seamless. And then I think that the other area that is worth a mention is obviously Cloud computing… we see that all the time. So, the move to perhaps have less things on premise… so, within the structure of the airport, you see things move into the Cloud space where again, centralised management. And when we talk about software, we talk about the ease of deployment, updates, it’s still relevant to the conversation about wide area networking, but it takes it up another level, where things are kept in the Cloud, management is done from a central location. And these are highly available, highly secure systems that we use every day and sometimes we don’t even know we’re using them. These concepts are never a ‘one size fits all’, we can never say that ‘airport A’ will want to do it this way. So, with all these things that we’ve discussed in mind, we have to be flexible, we have to offer different configurations for different customers. So, if you take your larger airport operations of technical people on site that can work with us on a solution, we have to be mindful that there are smaller airports that don’t have that technology, or the resources to implement that technology, so we then see ourselves in a more partnership role, and we will help and assist in that process. So, not one solution fits everybody, but if we’re clever about how we go about building these systems – and open architecture will help – we can have systems that offer a real benefit, regardless of the size and resources available to them.
A – Well, that’s all we have time for on Check-in today, which just gives me the chance to say thank you to our guest today, Darren Durham. Darren, it’s been a real pleasure having you on.
D – Thanks for having me, it’s been really good fun. I’ve enjoyed it.
A – So, thanks for listening and don’t forget to Check-in with us once again, when we’ll be joined by another aviation industry insider. And if you’re enjoying the series so far, please subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out on future episodes. But until next time, stay safe, and goodbye for now.