BELGIUM -- Around 300 IT executives from airlines and airports met here this week to discuss technology roadmaps for their industry, and many seemed uninterested in the promise of public cloud computing.
The venue for the annual Air Transport IT Summit, organized by aviation industry IT organization SITA, was near the famous battlefield site where Wellington defeated Napoleon. The underlying theme of the conference was how airlines could avoid meeting their own Waterloo in tough times through the use of innovative technology.
The 12th annual SITA/Airline Business Airline IT Trends Survey, whose results were announced at the conference, had gauged the IT plans of 129 airlines that took part, from the original sample of 200. Of the respondents, 56% expected an increase in IT spending next year, with only 10% expecting a decrease.
While the majority of airlines are planning to adopt virtual IT infrastructure and software environments, it was revealed that 75% of airlines had no plans to use public cloud infrastructure services.
Other industries have also shown a similar slow-footedness in moving toward public cloud infrastructures, but considering that the airline industry is known as a fast adopter of new technologies in the mobile and general online space, this lack of confidence in what the public cloud could offer stood out from the results.
The survey found that 40% of airlines have already created a virtual infrastructure environment, and this is expected to rise to 85% by 2013. Software and desktop virtualization are the next steps in this transition, according to the SITA.
Expressing public cloud concerns
There was much talk at the conference about ways to further cut costs and improve operations through outsourcing, shared services, information sharing and the wider adoption of social networking; all areas that can be supported by public clouds. But the SITA survey found that only 60% of respondents were supportive of adopting cloud services in general over the next couple of years, with the vast majority looking to private clouds instead.
When asked about the lack of enthusiasm among airlines for public clouds, Forrester analyst Henry Harteveldt said, "Airlines seem to be wary of choosing third-party providers in the cloud, with security still very much the main issue. If there is going to be any movement, it is going to be towards private cloud services first."
Gartner's top technology predictions for 2010 and beyond, published at the beginning of the year, included the position that, by 2012, 20% of businesses will own no IT assets. Virtualization, cloud-enabled services, and employees using personal PCs on corporate networks would drive this trend, Gartner reported.
Gartner analyst Tom Bittman recently wrote in his blog that he saw no major movement to the public cloud for a couple of years among organizations in general.
From a poll he had conducted with data center managers on the top concerns they had with public cloud computing, he found the score for "security and privacy" was more than the score for the next three concerns combined.
"Sometimes, when it looks like a meteor [about to crash into the ground], it is a meteor," Bittman said.
Bittman added, "Gartner continues to believe that IT organisations will spend more money on private than on public cloud computing through at least 2012."
Airlines are considering cloud, whether they like it or not
But like volcanic ash in the atmosphere, many airlines have trouble avoiding the public cloud when developing their technology roadmaps, despite what the SITA survey found.
Paul Coby, CIO at British Airways, told SITA conference delegates, "Cloud computing may be over-hyped, but as an industry we're moving into it because it's one of those game changers that only happen every 20 years or so. It's time to change from the traditional client/server model. The public cloud is massively scalable."
Coby said it was much cheaper "to use a Google-type service" and demonstrated to delegates how the airline was now using YouTube to keep customers informed about the consequences of ongoing industrial action by flight crews at the airline.
Coby asked, "Will airlines have their own private clouds or will SITA provide a public cloud for all of us?" SITA develops and provides systems for every major area of the airlines' operations, so it may well be an option.
Brian Cook, SITA vice president for airline and passenger solutions, said, "Whether people are [adopting the public cloud] or saying they're doing it are two different things. But airlines have been using shared infrastructures for years, their business models mean they have to.
"The application service provider (ASP) channel is something airlines are well aware of, so what is known as the public cloud will inevitably be taken up by the airlines through business necessity."
Ian Ryder, a vice president in SITA's application services business, added, "The take-up of the public cloud so far may not match the general industry hype, but it is something the industry is moving towards as a result of outsourcing, social networking and shared information services."
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