Melbourne Airport's Mark Funston: CIO profile

The average traveller may think of air travel in terms of security checks and airport lounges, but Melbourne Airport IT manager Mark Funston has a completely different perspective.
Written by David Braue, Contributor on

profile The average traveller may think of air travel in terms of security checks and airport lounges, but Mark Funston has a completely different perspective.

Mark Funston

Melbourne Airport IT manager Mark Funston
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A long-time technical worker at Melbourne Airport, Funston has progressed from his initial role in electrical engineering work to his current position as IT manager. He literally knows the facility inside and out — including the ultra-modern insides of the recently-completed stage 1 of the airport's $330 million international terminal expansion — and has leveraged this knowledge to provide invaluable perspectives on projects including the airport's new carrier-grade network.

That network is among the many hidden technological components of the terminal expansion, a five-year effort whose first stage adds three gates and 7000 square metres of concourse space. Several years ago, the project provided impetus for a major strategic review and Funston, who has been with the organisation since 1997 and leading its IT strategy for seven years, found himself at the pointy end.

Working with consultancy The Frame Group, Funston's 11-strong IT team — which looks after around 200 airport employees and an extensive array of display terminals, check-in counters, security systems, and more — spent six months reviewing the airport's requirements and assessing the current infrastructure's ability to cope with the demands of the planned expansion.

Those demands had increased dramatically in recent years with the influx of IP-based security, x-ray and other systems: with hundreds of end points communicating over the network, video was consuming around 80 per cent of the airport's network bandwidth alone. Applications were bumping their heads against the limits of the airport's gigabit Ethernet network, and with more traffic to come, it became clear that a jump to fibre-optic infrastructure was critical.

The resulting network delivers scads of bandwidth via fibre-optic cabling that spans the length and breadth of the facility. Interestingly, the new network relies on MPLS (multi-protocol label switching) — a carrier-grade technology normally used by telcos to ensure they can deliver consistent quality of service over massive backbones criss-crossing cities and countries.

MPLS is almost unheard-of on conventional business networks, but Funston says the sheer volume of time-sensitive video and voice traffic, and the airport's continuing shift towards an IT service-based delivery model, made it a necessity.

"We're providing services to airport tenants over our network, just like Telstra or Optus would for their customers," he explains. "We knew we needed a Layer 3 network, and our existing Layer 2 [gigabit Ethernet] network was reaching the limits of what we could do with it — particularly in terms of reliability. MPLS gave us the right flexibility and reliability that we needed, and allows us to provide layers of protection on our network by segregating traffic into various groups. On top of that, we can apply encryption to various components as needed."

Flying towards the future

It's not the first time Funston has turned to the cutting edge to keep up with the rapidly changing requirements of the airport's IT infrastructure — which includes, among other things, over 160 terabytes of online security footage and a host of complementary niche airline industry applications for reservations, flight tracking, and more. There's also a full Citrix thin-client environment that's used to run IT services at Launceston Airport, which is also owned by Melbourne Airport.

Funston says his years spent doing electrical engineering work behind the scenes have served him well in his role as head of the airport's IT strategy. "Doing all the hardware work has definitely made me more understanding of what goes on in the background and what people are doing to keep everything running," he explains.

"Being able to understand the power, distribution, and physical cabling infrastructure — as well as the project management and contractor management stuff I gained early on — allows me to communicate requirements to all of the team. It also allows me to think a little more laterally than a lot of the typical software types might do."

Funston's team handles IT services for a range of airlines with different requirements (the Melbourne Airport IT team handles network and services for all airport tenants except Qantas, which has its own terminal ease and manages its own IT). Lateral thinking, therefore, is crucial when managing a 24-hour operation with demanding government and commercial clients, extraordinary security and uptime requirements, and little tolerance for unexpected issues.

Because the airport functions as a service provider in an increasingly competitive industry, Funston has long looked for ways to improve the flexibility of the facility's network and the responsiveness of its IT team. As the MPLS network enables new networked service delivery, the airport is effectively building out its own cloud-computing infrastructure — which it uses to service its clients.

The ever-present imperative to improve service led to some major changes shortly after Funston started the job. For example, in 2004 a major server virtualisation project led to the elimination of two-thirds of the airport's server fleet, which now consists of VMware ESX Server-based systems running on Dell blade servers. This approach not only cut power, air conditioning and space requirements, but catalysed the establishment of a redundant disaster recovery site elsewhere in Melbourne.

More mundane projects like Windows 7 deployments are also on the cards eventually, but Funston notes that there is "no pressing reason" to upgrade; rather, the new operating system will be introduced when the airport upgrades its 250 desktops as Windows XP support is phased out.

In the shorter term, Funston is focused on capitalising on the airport's MPLS network to further expand the range of services it offers tenants — both airlines and, reflecting an expansion of the airport's core business, retail operators. Future expansion will see a major increase in retail space, for example, and the planned addition of new terminal space and gates will ramp up network usage even further.

For example, one recent project with The Frame Group built on the MPLS network to replace around 400 terminal display screens with Cisco Digital Media Signage, which allows delivery of informational videos, flight information, emergency and other messages while cutting power consumption by 80 per cent compared with the previous PC-based solution. Retail tenants can also purchase digital advertising, creating a new revenue stream for the airport. This content all runs over the new MPLS network, as will the IP video streams being pushed to monitors that will replace all the terminal's TVs in a related ongoing effort.

Funston says the varied and overlaid technology environments found in the airport keep his job varied and interesting. "I've never really seen another environment like it," he explains. "For me, the interest is the wide range of different systems you get to support. It's not like you're stuck doing one thing: the airport is constantly changing, shops moving around, new customers coming in, new airlines coming in. It is always challenging, and changing."

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