NAV Canada cruising along with Web portal technology

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Air planes, like trains, do follow very specific flight paths.

The systems that ensure hundreds of air carriers can criss-cross swiftly, safely and seamlessly over Canada’s skies are controlled by Nav Canada, the Ottawa-based private corporation that owns and operates Canada’s civil air navigation service (ANS).

Services delivered by the company include air traffic control, flight information, weather briefings, airport advisories, and electronic aids to navigation.

Nav Canada accomplishes its mandate through an infrastructure consisting of seven area control centres, 42 control towers, 63 flight service stations, six flight information centres and more than 1,000 ground-based navigational aids across the country.

Information from these countrywide “sources” is consolidated and made accessible to customers through Web portal technology from BEA Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.

Web portals use a variety of distributed applications, middleware and hardware to consolidate services from many different locations; they also allow users to share and collaborate with one another.

For instance, BEA’s Aqualogic Web portal software enables Nav Canada’s customers to view track locations on the Internet and provide their own input, well before tracks are opened. “The portal [serves as] a one-stop location where customers can retrieve and post pertinent information,” said Jacques Delisle, Web services information manager at Nav Canada.

A very different situation prevailed at Nav Canada before the portal technology was introduced.

In the past, Delisle said, track locations were relayed 12 hours in advance over the Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunications Network, which is still heavily based on radio teletype. Customers – such as air traffic controllers – had no way of providing input that could have a bearing on these locations.

Now, thanks to the new portal technology, customers can access information in real-time. This capability, said Delisle, fosters efficient air traffic control and prevents airport gridlock.

Besides providing “one-stop” information to external customers, such as airlines and airport authorities, the portal software also offers Nav Canada’s own employees secure access to internal applications and human resources information (on job postings, for instance).

Nav Canada staff can access the company portal to find forms, documents and career support services. “Five years ago the complaint from employees was they couldn’t find any information. Now they’re saying they have too much,” Delisle said.

The Nav Canada executive said the portal has also dramatically improved his company’s visibility online.

Before the roll out, Nav Canada’s online presence was akin to a “business card” on a Web site, he said. “Search for us on the Web and you would find something like a business card saying: this is Nav Canada.”

At the time, he said, the company’s Intranet was also in a mess. “If someone changed a document there was no was of knowing who did it.”

Today, five years on, all that’s no more than an unpleasant memory.

The transformation brought about by the new technology extends to areas such as:

Document control – Now all corporate documents have security and version controls, in accordance with Ontario Securities Commission requirements, Delisle said. “Layered security measures ensure only approved users can update official documents.”

Ground activities tracking –Airport Performance Monitor enables authorities to analyze ground activities at the airport and manage aircraft movement and flight plans. Based on data fed to it, the application calculates the time it would take for a plane to taxi and clear for takeoff, and reports on the maximum number of planes an airport can handle.

Air traffic data – The Traffic Density Analyzer collects specific North Atlantic Oceanic-related track messages from flight plans, position reports, weather data and schedule changes and displays track listings, track loading and other traffic flow information on the Internet.

Workload information – The Demand Monitor is a reporting tool that offers a quick heads up, over the Internet, on expected workload for the day at any Canadian airport.

The Nav Canada rollout exemplifies a shift in the way enterprises are using portal technology, according to one Canadian analyst.

“We are seeing the disappearance of the pure play portal vendor,” said George Goodall, senior research analyst for Info-tech Research Group Inc. in London, Ontario.

He said in the late 1990s when portals burst on to the business scene, the focus was on improving information sharing and distribution.

Today, said Goodall, portals are akin to an “infrastructure stack” that encompasses Web servers and other business apps. “Portals are the front end of whatever applications you want to deploy.”

Portal technology promotes greater congruence between a company’s technology systems and its business goals.

There is a “growing demand” for portal technology because of the business benefits it provides, according to Nenand Momcilovic, a systems engineer for BEA Canada in Mississauga, Ont.

The trend is particularly noticeable in government and the health sector, where portals are being deployed to foster enterprise-wide knowledge sharing and greater workflow productivity.

According to BEA Systems, nearly 51 per cent of enterprises worldwide have deployed portal software.

As more companies look to deploy Web services, they are clamouring for greater standardization, so the process of integrating multiple third-party technologies is less onerous.

Citing an IDC survey, Momcilovic said more than 80 per cent of companies purchase portal software to deploy Web-based applications. “A majority or portal buyers want to cut down intranet management cost and improve information and application access across their organization.”

Momcilovic said BEA Systems products have built-in tools that make it easier for customers to easily develop applications specific to their business, without extensive coding.

Despite an growing importance and use of portals, the technology still presents many challenges. In addition to “standardization”, buyers are grappling with issues such as oft-immature tools, persistent performance bottlenecks, implementation delays and cost overruns.

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