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FAA flies to Red Hat Linux

An air traffic management system upgrade saved $15M and took less time than expected

By Eric Lai
May 8, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A move by the Federal Aviation Administration to upgrade its air traffic management system by swapping out Hewlett-Packard Co. hardware running HP-UX Unix for less expensive x86 workstations running Red Hat Enterprise Linux has come in ahead of schedule and under budget -- and is delivering faster operations.

The system, based at the Volpe Center in Cambridge, Mass., monitors in real-time the 8,000 or so planes flying in U.S. airspace at any given moment. The air traffic management system differs from the air traffic control system based near Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia in that it a more of a strategic planning tool.

"This is for planning how to deal with weather fronts, not a radar-based system for plotting this or that plane," said Joshua Gustin, modernization program manager with the FAA.

According to Gustin, the switch to Linux began in April 2005, took one-third less time than scheduled, saved the FAA $15 million over its original estimate and has made the agency’s systems operate 30% more efficiently.

That's a far cry from the system that was in place when Gustin joined the FAA in 1990. At the time, the FAA -- which is part of the Department of Transportation -- was running its still mostly hand-built traffic management systems on servers from Apollo Computer Inc. By 1998, when the FAA decided to upgrade its equipment, Apollo had been bought out by Hewlett-Packard Co. That led the FAA to install Unix servers running HP-UX 10 and rewrite its applications from Fortran and Pascal to C and C++.

By 1999, Gustin had begun exploring Linux as a cheaper alternative. Spurred on by the need to replace aging RISC-based HP-UX Alaska workstations, the FAA last year upgraded to 1,000 new HP xw8000 workstations sporting single-core 3 GHz processors and 2GB of memory. The FAA also brought in Dell Inc. PowerEdge 1750 and 6650 servers to handle communications and other back-end needs.

All in all, the FAA spent $10 million on the upgrade, less than half the $25 million it initially thought the new system would cost, Gustin said.

One early obstacle involved getting graphics to display properly on Linux, a problem compounded by the fact that many users have two 19-inch LCD screens. That hurdle was eventually cleared by locating the right combination of video cards and drivers.

Otherwise, the transition from Unix to Linux has been fairly painless and has created room for future growth, said Gustin. For example, the FAA had 16 HP boxes for communications, with CPUs that were generally 60% utilized. The agency replaced those with four Dell PowerEdge 1750 servers sporting dual 3 GHz processors. According to Gustin, the four servers’ CPUs today run at less than 1% utilization. "We made a big leap for a much cheaper price," he said.

The transition to open-source software and commodity hardware will also enable the FAA to move from its hand-coded system -- which is becoming increasingly expensive to maintain -- to commercial software and a service-oriented architecture. "For example, we don’t use Oracle for our database, we use the same one that we wrote ourselves back in the mid-1980s," Gustin said.

The FAA hopes that a commercial database will be one of the first things implemented by Computer Sciences Corp., the systems integrator for the Linux switch.

Read more about Linux and Unix in Computerworld's Linux and Unix Topic Center.



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