FAA manages air traffic with Linux

The agency saved $15 million by migrating computers to the open-source operating system.

The Federal Aviation Administration has saved $15 million by migrating computers that manage air traffic flow to Linux, according to an announcement issued last week. The upgrade is part of a broader service-oriented architecture initiative that will replace proprietary traffic management systems with applications using Java, Web services, open-source software and Oracle products.

The FAA switched from a proprietary form of Unix to Red Hat Enterprise Linux, an open-source operating system. In the process, the agency consolidated hardware and software installed in 1999.

The FAA’s Linux deployment is unusual because the government typically uses Linux platforms on high-powered computer systems in government labs. At the FAA, the platform is on desktop computers in traffic flow centers.

The air traffic flow system, called the Enhanced Traffic Management System, predicts traffic surges, gaps and volume across the national airspace. The FAA tracks about 8,000 airplanes at any given time. The agency uses the real-time analysis system to keep the skies running smoothly.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux is on all traffic management systems at the traffic flow central processing facility, located at the Transportation Department’s Volpe Center in Cambridge, Mass. More than 100 sites rely on the system for air traffic management, including military facilities and international sites.

When officials first considered upgrading the entire system, they were facing a price tag of $25 million and an 18-month wait until full deployment. With Red Hat’s Linux platform, they spent less than $10 million and finished in one-third of the projected amount of time.

“By going to Linux, we now have choices of hardware” in the future, said Joshua Gustin, manager of the FAA’s Traffic Flow Management Modernization program.

High-performance computing manufacturers say the FAA’s move represents the next logical step in the open-source movement.

Silicon Graphics Inc., a high-performance computing vendor, supports many federal research labs that have migrated to Linux on SGI’s Altix superclusters. NASA’s Columbia high-performance computing system, one of the fastest supercomputers in the world, runs on an SGI Linux system. The Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also have high-powered systems that use SGI Linux products.

Graham Beasley, a federal business development manager at SGI, said the FAA is unusual in deploying Linux on desktop PCs. “Open source is a lot easier in terms of maintenance,” he said.

“Challenges in migrating to Linux are becoming fewer and fewer as important features and applications become widely available on Linux,” said Jill Matzke, Altix 3000 product marketing manager at SGI. “But most major server vendors have withheld features from their Linux offerings, preferring instead to keep their customers on a proprietary” Unix operating system.

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