Kansas City International Creates Secure Data Flow With Converged Network

Kansas City International Airport completed a three-year renovation project last November that included a significant IT overhaul. One of the key components is a unique, converged network that provides data, voice and video services to all airlines, retailers and airport operations throughout the facility.

The airport, built in 1972, had a limited IT infrastructure in place before the upgrade, says technology director Ron Crain. It included a LAN of about 100 devices in the administration building and a slew of ad hoc PCs and phones used throughout the facility by airport workers and tenants.

Crain says that dearth of technology devices allowed his team to design a new network virtually from scratch. They decided to build a fully converged network to be shared by all airport terminal tenants. No airline or concession would operate a private network. Managers determined that a single network would be easier to manage and would have lower maintenance and operations costs, Crain says.

The network is built on Sonet (Synchronous Optical Network) and meshed Gigabit Ethernet architectures. It carries all data, voice and video for the 14,000-acre airport campus. A second Sonet ring provides an IP-based network that serves phones and video cameras in bus shelters and waiting areas around a new parking lot.

The network provides links to a central database that's used to support airport operations. Running on three Sun Microsystems servers in the administration building, the database includes real-time interfaces with airline flight systems, the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control system, financial systems, weather feeds, runway status feeds, a work-order management system, GPS-based vehicle tracking and the airport Web site. Airport management provides access to portions of the database for network users, depending on their needs.

Security Lockdown

With critical airline data and point-of-sale information such as credit card numbers moving along the network, security was a key concern. For physical security, all network nodes are located within defined, secure areas. Information security is provided in part by an elaborate system of external and internal firewalls that protect the network from outside intrusions and also prevent individual tenants from accessing one another's systems and data.

Benefits of the single network include a lower cost of ownership than would have been possible had the airport used multiple networks. "We built a system that we could maintain at a very low cost," Crain says. He says Kansas City International is one of few airports operating a unified voice and data network, and he expects many airports will use this type of design in the future.

Hugh Brooks agrees. Brooks, project manager at Ultra Electronics Airport Systems, a Manchester, England-based airport design firm that handled the software and database integration for Kansas City International, says, "I think this will become more common because airlines are becoming more fragmented and less dominant [in how they use airport space], and airports have decided to take control of their resources." As a result, the airports can better control costs and manage change.

The IT infrastructure now in place cost the airport about $18.5 million, Crain says. He says it's difficult to calculate a return on investment for the project because there's no baseline to compare the network against.

The deployment did come with some challenges. "One issue was how to deploy a LAN over what amounts to a mile-and-a-half corridor," Crain says. "We had to do some unique things in terms of laying the fiber and copper cable in the facilities. It's a complex engineering task."

Another lesson learned, he says, was that products and services don't always deliver the capabilities promised by vendors. For example, the airport had to swap out some of the Sonet hardware for more advanced models because the initial systems didn't provide the features it needed.

That led to some implementation delays, Crain says. But despite those holdups, the entire project was completed on time and on budget.

Violino is a freelance writer in Massapequa Park, N.Y. Contact him at bviolino@optonline.net.

Kansas City International Airport


Business: One of two airports operated and managed by the Kansas City Aviation Department in Missouri, it serves millions of passengers each year from Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and other states. Revenue in 2004 was $98.4 million.

Project champion: Ron Crain

IT department: 14

Project payback: Total IT infrastructure, including the network, cost about $18.5 million. The single, converged network is easier to manage and has lower maintenance and operations costs.

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