Parking the PC

Neil Robson, IT director of National Car Parks, doesn’t bother to make his company’s business sound more complex than it is. “We rent slabs of concrete to people who need somewhere to leave their car,” he says. Still, doing this well and doing it profitably, is not as straightforward as it sounds.

It is about “providing a good environment for the parker. Somewhere that is clean, secure and working”. While doing it profitably means ensuring that meeting these service goals is done as efficiently and as cost-effectively as possible.

For NCP, the UK’s largest provider of off-street parking space, this is not a trivial task. NCP directly operates more than 600 car parks across the country, and manages hundreds more on behalf of demanding customers such as Network Rail, BAA and a growing number of local authorities.

To keep costs low, the great majority of NCP car parks are operated without full-time staff on-site, but with local support available nearby. However, to ensure that NCP meets its commitment to its customers, it must still ensure that each car park is fit for purpose.

This means that, on a 24 x 7 basis, NCP’s car park lifts are working; the ticket machines have enough tickets; the automatic barriers operate correctly; and that all of its facilities are safely monitored by NCP’s network of CCTV cameras. Should anything still go wrong, any customer that needs to must also be able to call for assistance from any of the voice communication points embedded in the company’s ticket machines and barriers.

NCP has spent six years and £25 million installing systems that enable it to operate in a highly efficient and cost-effective way. Beginning at the start of the decade with the construction of a highly resilient IP network, the company has been through a series of consolidation exercises that have reduced seven regional operations centres to a single National Operations Centre (NOC) in the south-east of England.

It has not always been an exercise in implementing state-of-the-art technology, but with the recent opening of its NOC, NCP has joined the growing ranks of companies that have opted to reduce the risk and complexity of operating distributed PCs by replacing them with centrally managed blade computers.

Using systems supplied by blade PC pioneer ClearCube, NCP has created a “trading floor” environment that enables each agent to view six or more screens offering real-time information on the status of every automated device installed across the NCP car park estate. However, unlike most trading floor environments, NCP’s is not underpinned by expensive high-end computers driving complex, integrated systems, and it doesn’t need an equally expensive staff of IT specialists to keep it running.

“We used blades because we wanted the NOC to be self-sufficient. We didn’t want it to have to depend on a vendor, or on an IT department,” says Robson.

The ClearCube approach supports this goal of self-sufficiency by allowing NCP to run the applications required to monitor its different remote systems on discrete PC blades that are conveniently housed in the room next door to the call centre agents that depend on them. If any application goes down, instead of calling in an engineer, NCP agents are able to simply replace a faulty blade with a new one, and download the application’s back-up image.

So far, says Robson, the system has proved so robust that “systems availability has been 100%”, but if anything should fail, he is confident that NCP’s own call centre agents will be able to fix the problem within five minutes. It is a system that provides data centre-like reliability, but without data centre-like costs.

Today, although NCP is thought of as the country’s leading car park operator by 78% of consumers, the company still only manages 7% of the UK’s parking spaces – but this figure is set to grow. As other

organisations such as local authorities increasingly look to outsource the management of their parking facilities, NCP is preparing to expand its portfolio of managed sites, and the flexibility and efficiency of blade driven IT systems means it can do so economically.

In the future, says Robson, adding new parking sites to the NCP system will be as simple and inexpensive as installing a few new PC blades. That’s why he believes “the blade system is perfect for our business”.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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