profile The average traveller may think of air travel in terms of security checks
and airport lounges, but Mark Funston has a completely different
Melbourne Airport IT manager Mark Funston (Credit: )
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
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
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
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