Paul Coby column: cloud 9

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SITA chairman Paul Coby on why cloud computing in the aviation industry is not a far-off dream and the innovation it offers could leave both company and customer better off

Earlier this year, SITA announced its programme to build the Air Transport Community Cloud, dedicated to the aviation industry. Now, 'the Cloud' is a much over-hyped ­concept - especially by IT suppliers.

Seemingly not a day goes by without some cumulo-nimbus decorated piece of supplier propaganda dropping into my inbox! But last June I went on record - at the 2010 SITA/Airline Business Air Transport IT Summit - as saying the Cloud is one of my "Big 4 C" trends for the next decade in Airline IT. Had I succumbed to the supplier hype?

Well, I hope not. I still believe cloud computing is one of the major trends of the current decade, not least because it enables the chief information officer to become the best friend of the chief financial officer and their chief executive by accessing economies of scale at the same time as increasing business flexibility. This is because, if well executed, the Cloud allows normal companies in normal industries to access flexible computing, processing and storage capabilities comparable to, and sometimes provided by, companies of the scale of Google, IBM, Orange, eBay or Microsoft.

What is this magical Cloud then? Well, as with all hype there are as many definitions as suppliers. To me, the Cloud is the provision of a shared computing service remotely from the user, which is charged on a business usage basis. The cost of the hardware and operating systems and the cost of licences is aggregated and borne by the supplier. This enables you, as an IT provider, to acquire your basic computer processing at costs lower than you could on your own, and to use them when you want them. It can be used to switch on and switch off test systems, it can be used to provide for peak loading, it can be used to provide fundamental services.

This development is very much helped by the arrival of the Internet and web connectivity. Thus software as a service is provided in the Cloud.

Indeed, the air transport industry is no stranger to such clouds. In my definition of a cloud, the airlines' invention - the Global ­Distribution Systems - is one, and thus Amadeus, Sabre, Galileo and Worldspan are cloud computing providers, they just did it with older technologies.

Some background about how SITA got here may, I hope, be interesting - plus some explanation of why we believe this is going to be a winner for the SITA Community Concept.

This hit me in a flash almost two years ago, and I have been encouraging SITA to develop the Air Transport Cloud programme ever since then. This is because the Cloud is a service that is particularly well suited to SITA, with our unique community services, the telecommunications infrastructure for which is provided on a not-for-profit basis for the whole air transport industry.

SITA's investment in shared Cloud Computing infrastructure is now well underway, and the ATI Cloud applications and SITA Cloud services will go live from June. They will include infrastructure, platform, desktop and software-as-a-service offerings. Even better, the infrastructure cloud services will be provided by SITA as a community service on a not-for-profit basis to all SITA Members.

As I recall, the Cloud came up at a SITA joint board/executive strategy day way back in 2009. As I said, it is not a new idea for air transport. We already access economies of scale in terms of reservations and check-in, where airlines pay-per-passenger boarded for a centrally-hosted service from GDSs and SITA.

However, the idea of extending this to a wider range of services, facilitated by the new technologies in data centres, networks and software-as-a-service, is absolutely made for SITA - which uniquely has global network connections to almost every major airline and every major airport in the World.

SITA chief executive Francesco Violante's and SITA's vision has been that the air transport industry's very special needs are brilliantly suited to an industry Cloud. Each flight that takes off is of course a miracle of process and systems integration. Each involves many different entities, including airlines, airports, manufacturers and GDS's that share numerous business applications.

For that take-off to occur safely and efficiently, they must co-operate across the complex air transport ecosystem. The aviation industry operates within complex national, regional and global regulations and standards.

SITA has therefore built an integrated cloud combining network and IT infrastructure solely dedicated to and - best of all - specifically tailored to the air transport industry and our integration complexities. And the SITA Air Transport Cloud will not just be limited to SITA applications. As well as providing the basic applications to run an airline or an airport, we are going to provide the platform for independent software vendors and application service providers to distribute their applications to aviation customers. Watch for developments. I think the Cloud will revolutionise ATI technology in service, time and cost.

We have seen this happen already in passenger service systems, and the Cloud makes this open to all air transport services.

Paul Coby is chairman of SITA and former BA chief information officer. Read his previous columns on distribution and social media at: flightglobal.com/ITzone