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US Postal Service Moves To GNU/Linux 477

Posted by kdawson
from the cobol-package-management dept.
twitter writes "The US Postal Service has moved its Cobol package tracking software to HP machines running GNU/Linux. 1,300 servers handle 40 million transactions a day and cost less than the last system, which was based on a Sun Solaris environment." The migration took a year. The USPS isn't spelling how big the savings are, except that they are "significant."
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US Postal Service Moves To GNU/Linux

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  • Re:A year? (Score:4, Informative)

    by rnaiguy (1304181) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:13PM (#28698297)
    rates are pegged to rise no faster than inflation, so not really: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_United_States_postage_rates [wikipedia.org]
  • Re:Now? (Score:5, Informative)

    by langedb (518453) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:33PM (#28698435) Homepage Journal

    "Not only that, I just checked and according to fedex it costs $7.39 to mail that same letter from coast to coast for their cheapest option. That's only what, nearly 17 times more expensive?"

    factor in how much of your tax dollars when into that and then get back to us with a valid point....

    Umm, the USPS is self-funded. None of your tax dollars go towards supporting their operation source [usps.com]

  • Re:Find It Yourself (Score:5, Informative)

    by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:34PM (#28698445)

    When you request the location of your package, it just sneers at you and says "Google is your friend."

    That's actually true.

    Type/paste a tracking number from any of the major shippers into google and it will automagically figure out that is a tracking number and will show you the current status.

  • Re:Now? (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:35PM (#28698457)

    factor in how much of your tax dollars when into that and then get back to us with a valid point....

    You mean... zero?

    http://www.usps.com/communications/newsroom/postalfacts.htm

  • Re:Now? (Score:4, Informative)

    by yali (209015) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:37PM (#28698475)

    factor in how much of your tax dollars when into that and then get back to us with a valid point....

    Gee whiz, I don't know whether I can handle the math. Somebody help me out, what's 44 cents minus zero [slate.com]?

  • Re:Now? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:40PM (#28698491)

    Umm, the USPS is self-funded. None of your tax dollars go towards supporting their operation source

    That's a little misleading - it hasn't always been that way, so a lot of the USPS infrastructure is tax-payer funded.
    In addition, they come around every once and a while and ask for money from Congress - they are doing it this year [infowars.com] and while I am hazy on the details, I believe they did something similar about a decade ago in order to fix funding problems with their pension system. Plus, they have a monopoly on letter delivery - that's why fedex costs so much more, they have to classify and price it as something other than a letter - so that's an indirect tax by government intervention to prevent a free market.

  • Re:For once ... (Score:5, Informative)

    by the_humeister (922869) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:49PM (#28698587)

    Really? GNU/Linux? How do we know it's not really Ruby/Apache/X.org/KDE/GNU/Linux? The article just says "Linux environment." It could very well be BSD/Linux instead of GNU/Linux.

    But I digress. HP generally uses Red Hat Linux. To be semantically correct the summary should have read "Postal Service moves to Red Hat Enterprise Linux on HP Hardware"

  • Re:For once ... (Score:4, Informative)

    by BoomerSooner (308737) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @09:01PM (#28699075) Homepage Journal

    Having interviewed for a position at the postal training center, they used PHP on Apache and Solaris for the OS (Oracle for the DB).

    I'm not sure which training location they are talking about but one of the main ones (Postal Training Center is in Norman, OK).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @09:12PM (#28699161)

    http://www.linuxjournal.com/article/2985

    Linux has been sorting the US Mail for over a decade, and doing it faster, cheaper, and more accurately than it ever did before.

  • by qazwart (261667) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @09:18PM (#28699199) Homepage

    Actually, I use to code in Cobol, and there are lots of problems with the language as a language.

    It isn't even a full procedural language let alone not object oriented. The alleged advantage of the "English-like" syntax is actually a big disadvantage because it is wordy and hard to skim, or see the structure of the program.

    It's saving grace is the fully defined data structure that makes it easy to read and write records.

    The problem with Cobol is that it was designed by a committee which really didn't understand what problem they were trying to solve. They thought that if you made programming languages more natural, it would be easier for programmers to program in. It was at least 15 years before the concept of top-down programming.

    No, Cobol was a bear to program in. It isn't the worst language I've ever used (Fortran 66, 8085A assembler, APL, Thoroughbred Basic, Cadol, and RPG were some of the languages I use to know.) But, it certainly there in contention with the worst of them.

  • by NoBozo99 (836289) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @09:45PM (#28699387) Journal

    OPenSolaris isn't dying and BSD isn't dead. That just FUD spread by pepople that don't know any better.

    and that is reality, so right back at you.

  • Re:For once ... (Score:2, Informative)

    by bjackson1 (953136) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @12:08AM (#28700301)
    Actually, my girlfriend worked on this project and she informs me that it's implemented in GNU/Linux. Word of mouth being what it is these days, though, I thought that I'd quote a much better article than TFA.

    The service is moving 1,300 Sun Solaris midrange servers to a Hewlett-Packard Linux environment. USPS is using Novellâ(TM)s SUSE Linux on the mainframe and distributed computing platforms to forge greater interoperability between the two environments, Byrne said.

    Source: http://gcn.com/Articles/2009/07/13/Update2-USPS-open-source-Product-Tracking-System.aspx?Page=1&p=1 [gcn.com]

  • by jnaujok (804613) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @12:28AM (#28700413) Homepage Journal

    Actually, FedEx still gets a lot of hand-written, photocopied or otherwise POS labels all the time. Just like the post office, they are encoded with a bar code at the first station that gets the package and are then read optically by a computer from then on. Or did you think those little squiggles on the bottom of your postal envelope (Postal Bar/Line code) were for decoration?

    FedEx has a whole bunch of people whose only job is to look at scanned images of labels and type in the actual address when the machines fail to read them.

    And I'm not in the part that deals with all that. That's the Tracker hardware. We just get the 60-100M scans per day, turn them from an isolated event into a "package" and then forward that information on to billing and the web interface system for tracking (and another dozen downstream systems that work with the data.) We also get fed information from about half a dozen other systems (like delay information, if there's an accident or a storm that grounds the airplanes) and use all of it to predict delivery dates for the packages. We also process point of failure information and information on commitment dates (the date that your package becomes free if we don't get it there) and containerization and consolidation information (i.e. what packages are in that bag, that got packed into that shipping container that got loaded onto that airplane, etc.) so we can pass scans done on a container down to all of the packages in that container. That's about another 20 million plus events per day.

    A typical package traveling in the system ends up with 20-30 events that occur on it. Some end up with 80 or more. There's a lot more that goes on too, like clearance information, and multiple-piece shipments, COD information, and so on and so on. All of it goes through our system. With 45 boxes (actually we just bumped up to 50 with the June updates) and 12 database boxes. All HP boxes running Red Hat.

  • by Rolgar (556636) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @12:37AM (#28700451)

    I'm a system analyst, and I support the hardware distribution that goes into this.

    This system doesn't have to help get the mail there, it just has to report when it's arrived. Mail processing is done by large machines in localized distribution centers, and then shipped to the local post offices where they get it into the hands of the carrier on the route for that day.The data entry is handled by hand held scanners that upload the data back to the LIM (local server). The central computers are most likely in one of three spots (I'm not sure, I don't know how they're configured, I just support the system they're ordered through) either in Eagan, Raleigh, or St. Louis. At least, that's where I know of major server locations in the USPS. But I'm not sure the information is sent to the local servers wirelessly. I know that the local locations have USB cradles, so I assume the data is kept on the handheld unit all day, then uploaded when the carrier returns to the office, but that's just a guess. If that's the case, the machine sits idle most of the day, then runs most of it's work in the hour or two when the carriers return to the office in a batch run.

  • by jnaujok (804613) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @12:38AM (#28700465) Homepage Journal

    As I mentioned above in reply to another post, we still get hand-written airbills, airbills that have been photo-copied (Gee, twenty packages, all with the same tracking number...) and you can still find airbills in the system that are total crap. Try tracking the package "444444444444" sometime... (Hey, we filtered out "TWELVEZEROES" and "NO_NUM_GIVEN")

    Our transactions are things like "contract event" when you fill in an airbill on-line, pickup scans, revenue data, station outbound, ramp inbound, ramp outbound, hub inbound, revenue exceptions, hub outbound, station inbound, on-van, delivery, proof-of-delivery, package close, point-of-failure processing, etc. etc. We have over 70 types of scans, and a typical package ends up with 20-30 events on it. If you think you can see anything when you track a package, you have no idea how much more goes into it behind the scenes. Every one of those scans is 2-3K in length, these aren't just a simple 20 byte "ping" or something. And we retain all that data for nine months.

    And we still do 133 transactions per second per server.

    And always remember that the USPS contracts out to FedEx to move all of its "Priority Mail".

  • by RotateLeftByte (797477) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @01:25AM (#28700663)

    From memory, this is the routing the letter took.
    1) Road Vehicle, Post Box to Airport
    2) Helicopter - Scilly Isles to Mainland (Penzance) (Scheduled Service)
    3) Road Vehicle to Airport (approx 80 miles)
    4) Plane (1) to East Midlands (Mail Charter)
    5) Plane (2) to Edinburgh(Mail Charter)
    6) Plane (3) to Kinross (Mail Charter)
    7) Road Vehicle to Inverness ( at least 30 miles)
    8) Plane (4) to Kirkwall (Mail Charter)
    9) Road Vehicle to Destination

    All in less than 24 hours. Ok, the distnce (approx 850 miles) does not stack up against the distances in North America but for the number of steps the mail took I think it is pretty impressive.

    When it works, Royal Mail does good work but all too often the 'posties' are out on Strike often over trivial things. When I was a student and worked delivering the Christmas poat, the locl sorting office went on strike for a day. The reason? The Canteen (works restaurant) had decided to limit the number of Tomato Sauce sachets that were given away free with a full breakfast to two instead of three. Total Stupidity if you ask me.

    That said, the people who deliver the mail as opposed to those who sort it in the back office are far more in touch with the real world and often (like their USPS bretheren) got to extra ordinary length to deliver the post.

  • by True Grit (739797) * <edwcogburnNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @01:31AM (#28700683)

    I think the summary and the TFA are a bit confusing. It probably would have been better had the summary linked not just to the TFA but also directly to the gcn.com article [gcn.com] which is linked to from TFA, or maybe better yet, just to the gcn.com article. What I get from that gcn.com article is this:

    a) There is a mainframe that is talking to ~1300 "midrange" servers.

    b) The mainframe is an IBM Z-series which has been shifted over from an IBM proprietary OS to Novell SUSE Linux.

    c) The COBOL code is running on the *mainframe*, not the ~1300 servers! (TFA summary is wrong on this)

    d) Because the mainframe is now running Linux, and because of a USPS IT decision to standardize on Linux (this is why OpenSolaris was never an option - sorry OpenSolaris fans), they're now converting the servers to Linux as well for better interoperability between the mainframe environment and server environments.

    e) As for what this system is actually tracking:

    Events are transactions that occur at the service's retail counters, such as shipping and picking up packages or the delivery of priority mail by carriers to businesses and residences. The mail is scanned to confirm delivery, and that information is sent to the PTS database. ...

    âoeWe're inserting like 40 million events a day,â he added. ...

    The PTS has 56 transaction types, such as acceptance scans and delivery confirmations, that have now all been migrated to Linux.

    The gcn.com article has more info, but even it is confusing to me. Questions:

    What is an "HP Linux Environment" (Does HP have its own version of Linux? What distro is HP using?)

    Any Z-series gurus reading this want to chime in and explain what the IFL actually is (Page 2 of article)?

    Yes, I know, I could Google for those answers, but I'm already worn out just doing what the original story submitter should have done. Just consider the above an "improved summary". :)

  • Re:A year? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Old97 (1341297) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @05:16AM (#28701425)

    All of Germany fits into less than 3 of our midwestern states. Germany is about 137000 sq. miles and the U.S. is about 3.79 million sq. miles (Wikipedia). That's not 4 times it's closer to 28 times the size of Germany.

    The USPS is a self-supporting corporation. It' has government mandates it must fulfill, i.e. delivering "franked" mail from Congress and providing services to every corner of the U.S at a uniform price. The U.S. population densities only approach Germany's in a few places. Much of it is very sparsely populated and not all that easy to get to.

    Is the Bundespost government subsidized or self supporting? I'm suspecting the former, because the 1976 rates were several times higher than the USPS rates of 1976 (I don't recall what they were.)

    Also, there is competition for the USPS for all the most profitable business except first class mail. UPS and Fedex and others deliver packages - but at rates that are typically much higher and which vary based on distance and location. They can refuse to serve any locations that are unprofitable or inconvenient. The USPS cannot. The USPS still maintains far more post offices in more locations than any private corporation could justify but they do so because citizens want their post offices regardless of how small or isolated their communities are.

  • Re:For once ... (Score:3, Informative)

    by extrasolar (28341) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @02:51PM (#28707377) Homepage Journal

    You're right.

    Just call it GNU to avoid this sort of confusion.

    I'm serious. Just remember that GNU was there first, and the whole point of the GNU project was to write a free OS. And most of the software that you use on a GNU/Linux system is GNU software [fsf.org] (not Linux software). GNU software, by definition, is software meant to be part of the GNU system. You can't say that about Apache, or Ruby, or X.org. Of course, there are parts of the GNU system that aren't GNU software but are free so that GNU can rely upon it.

    Linux without GNU is a sad state, a kernel without an operating system. And GNU without Linux is a system that doesn't run. So GNU/Linux, at least, makes sense. Of course, you *could* run a Linux system without any GNU software at all. If you want to do that, just to make a point, go for it, and that wouldn't be a GNU variant. And you can even have some GNU software on your machine, if the your computer doesn't rely too much on GNU software, just like running gcc windows doesn't make windows a variant of GNU.

    But why aren't more people doing that? Where is this mythical Linux operating system, in the wild? It's because Linux is simply an incomplete operating system without GNU. Therefore, GNU/Linux it is.

    (Of course, I'm talking about a general purpose operating system. Chrome OS, isn't a GNU system, but I don't see anyone calling Chrome OS "Linux" either, just because it uses the Linux kernel. Nor does anyone call Mac OS X "Darwin". The Palm Pre OS isn't a GNU system, but no one calls it a Linux distribution. An OS is more than just the kernel folks, get over it!)

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