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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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  • A year? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by geekoid (135745) <`moc.oohay' `ta' `dnaltropnidad'> on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @06:47PM (#28698077) Homepage Journal

    that's pretty damn good time to move a system.

    Now f they could drop tues, thurs and sat mail service they would save a bundle.

  • by geekoid (135745) <`moc.oohay' `ta' `dnaltropnidad'> on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @06:51PM (#28698107) Homepage Journal

    Your point?
    There isn't anything wrong with COBOL for these kind of transactions.

  • Re:Now? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hedwards (940851) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @06:59PM (#28698181)
    What are you whining about? The cost of postage has historically risen at a lower rate than inflation. Meaning that stamps do cost less, just not in face value.
  • Re:Now? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by basementman (1475159) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:02PM (#28698211) Homepage
    Yeah it's totally insane that we are charged a whole $0.44 to reliably send any piece of paper over 3,000 miles to it's precise recipient in a matter of days. This is the kind of technological marvel that future societies will be looking back in awe of.
  • by Abcd1234 (188840) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:11PM (#28698277) Homepage

    I'm sure I could get a dramatic speed improvement running Apple II 6502 code on an emulator on a Mac Pro simply because the emulator can run faster than the original hardware.

    Given that it took 1400 Linux boxes to handle the load, I'd say your post is, at best ignorant, at worst, a blatant troll.

    a) Just because it's COBOL, doesn't mean it was running on crappy hardware.

    b) COBOL is far from dead, in that many applications running today are written in it. Believe it or not, it makes more sense to continue to run that old code than to rewrite from scratch in the latest shiny because they already know *it works*.

  • Re:Now? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MozeeToby (1163751) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:14PM (#28698317)

    You're really complaining about $.50 for the level of service you get from the USPS? For that price, you can send a standard letter anywhere in the US (including the non-continental US) usually arriving in less than 5 days with a loss rate of virtually zero. They deliver mail to (nearly) every address in the US 6 days a week, and will even come to check for outgoing if you don't have any incoming. They even manage to deliver when the roads are absolute shit and no one in their right mind would be out and about.

    All for a price that has actually been decreasing over the years if you take into account inflation, let alone the increases in gas prices that have occurred over the last 10 years. Personally, I think that's pretty damn good and wouldn't complain if they raised the price to an even dollar, it would still be under priced for the service they provide.

  • Re:Now? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by je ne sais quoi (987177) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:18PM (#28698337)
    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? Travel times are 5 days compared to about 7 for the USPS, not much faster. I'm sure the libertarians will chime in that they could do that much cheaper if the (subsidized) USPS weren't in the way, but I suspect it would be like the way that CD prices went down after the technology became established, or the way that cable and telephone prices went down after the markets were deregulated (i.e., they didn't). Bottom line is that the USPS is an astonishingly inexpensive with a low failure rate for the price. It's a great service that our government provides. While I'm glad that they are saving this money, I'd rather that they put it to work on avoiding reductions in service or balancing their budget rather than reducing the price of postage.
  • by digitalhermit (113459) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:22PM (#28698377) Homepage

    That was uncalled for. A Linux user will ask you very politely if the package bar code was code128 or some other zebra coding technology. Someone will pipe in that back in his day, there were no barcoded ZIPs, just hand written numbers written in brown crayon on a cardboard box. Someone else will chime in that back in his day, you were lucky if it had the country on it, much less a ZIP code. Someone else will tell you that UPS uses a system called PLD and you need to look at the 1Z label code and direct you to ups.com. Someone will call that person an idiot and say that USPS is not UPS. Someone else will ask, "Why are you trying to track your package? Tell us what you really want to accomplish."

    (I kid, I kid. I'm a Linux user through and through.)

  • Re:A year? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MightyYar (622222) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:55PM (#28698625)

    or the bogus inflation numbers the feds like to publish?

    Almost certainly the "bogus" number, though every criticism I've ever heard of it claims that it is too low and that the real cost of living increase is much higher... so that would tend to make the USPS even more of a bargain.

    Price them out vs. their competition and they are pretty darned competitive for a big government bureaucracy... though it is hard to compare them directly since the USPS will not guarantee a delivery date.

  • Re:Now? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:11PM (#28698751)

    Wait... fedex costs more because USPS has a monopoly? Lets see... what other monopolies are out there to compare to this statement. Nope, does not compute.

    Some people do not like the USPS because it represents an actual successful arm of the government. You want to know why they ask congress for money? Its to get back what Congress ultimately takes from the USPS because its the only thing besides taxes that makes money in our government system.

    I say YAY USPS, one of the few "companies" where you dont have to worry about your pension, retirement, or jobs.

    Let me use a "scare word" for those of you whom are still stuck in the 1980s. "Socialism" can work.

  • by pz (113803) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:18PM (#28698799) Journal

    Sure, so long as you never need to make any changes to the code. The surviving COBOL coders have gone back into comfortable retirement with the money they made fixing Y2K. So they've moved from old iron to a modern operating system; they could still reap even more benefits by recoding for modern languages and coding practices.

    But then, this is the US Postal Service. COBOL's probably fast enough for the task.

    So you're saying that COBOL is so hideously difficult, so byzantine, so labyrinthine in nature that no one could possibly learn it now? That programmers educated today have no possibility of understanding a language that was designed some decades ago? You realize that C is 30 years old now, right?

    This sort of fear mongering through ignorance is getting stale. COBOL is just another language, and one that happened to be designed for ease of expression for less-than-stellar programmers. Legions of students have learned enough C over a weekend to code up the examples in K&R, so I'm actually quite confident that professional programmers can, without any prior experience in COBOL, learn the language, even become proficient in it, in a brief enough time to make modifications to existing code bases.

    Look, we're talking about learning a computer language and modifying or maintaining code, not learning Elizabethan English well enough to write a new Shakespeare play that can pass off as an original. It just isn't that hard.

  • Re:A year? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Firehed (942385) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:47PM (#28698983) Homepage

    While I'm no fan of rate hikes, getting any sort of physical entity across the country in a couple of days for under fifty cents is pretty much a modern miracle.

  • by Darinbob (1142669) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @09:11PM (#28699153)
    COBOL is not "slow". It is a compiled language. Sure the source code may involve a lot more lines and words than the equivalent C, but it likely compiles down to roughly the same size.

    Since the article mentioned that the code was ported I'm assuming it was natively compiled and not just running under an emulator.
  • Re:Now? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by adolf (21054) <flodadolf@gmail.com> on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @09:51PM (#28699429) Journal

    I don't mean to strawman your argument, but: Do you really want your government taxing itself? Because that's a layer of absurdity that I, for one, am completely unwilling to pay for the administration of.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @10:01PM (#28699531)

    Tell us what you really want to accomplish

    As an aside, it seems that everyone I ask that to is really offended by it, even when I get an answer out of them and am able to hand them a 30 second solution from package bar to replace the nightmare of a kludge they're asking for help with using package foo. Even at the more "advanced" level, I've been called an idiot for "not knowing" how to get bash to print the third column of a file when either awk or cut is exactly what they want (protip: bash is glue for sticking these other programs together).

  • Re:A year? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @10:08PM (#28699573)

    So good that it's illegal to compete with?

    Competing with the post office is another one of those libertarian dreams that doesn't work in The Real World.

    The USPS is legally obligated to provide daily mail delivery to every address in the country, for a fixed price (fixed == the price must be the same regardless of where sender and recipient are located; there can be no variance by distance, or difficulty of delivery). FedEx, UPS, etc. would have a hard time scaling up to do that, and they don't really want to. They'd rather cherry pick the profitable parts of the delivery business, while leaving universal service to the post office.

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

    by Hal_Porter (817932) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @10:37PM (#28699759)

    Or to troll the crap out of people. Trolling leads to page views and more comments.

  • Re:A year? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by darkmeridian (119044) <william@chuang.gmail@com> on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @10:40PM (#28699781) Homepage

    There are good reasons why it is illegal to compete with the USPS. The Postal Service has requirements that other competitors do not. First, it has to offer first class service to all fifty states, even Alaska, Hawaii, and other unprofitable places. Second, it has to charge exactly the same rates domestically regardless of the distance. Third, you can mail an envelope you labeled by hand whereas UPS/FedEx would require you to barcode it.

    If you allowed private enterprises to compete unchecked, they would cherrypick the most profitable routes (hubs, basically) and quickly bankrupt the Post Office. They'd also charge less than the Post Office on short routes that the Post Office would need to subsidize the longer routes. But if you had to regulate competitors to make sure they had the same disadvantages as the Post Office, what's the point?

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

    by raitchison (734047) * <robert@aitchison.org> on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @10:41PM (#28699789) Homepage Journal

    I suspect use of the term is more likely to provoke diatribes than to avoid them.

  • Re:Now? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ScentCone (795499) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @11:28PM (#28700089)
    "Socialism" can work

    So, the USPS is self-funded, relying on delivering services in highly competitive market in order to pay their bills. They have a variety of positions to fill, and offer fairly modest salaries combined with fairly aggressive benefits packages in order to attract and retain workers who could just go somewhere else.

    How is this socialism? Other than, obviously, the government controlling the prices they're allowed to charge, and thus limiting their ability to more gracefully meet certain costs. So it's not socialism - it's a business running in a market, and managing to hang on by its teeth despite an especially burdensome regulatory millstone around its neck.
  • Re:A year? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by moosesocks (264553) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @12:26AM (#28700401) Homepage

    Yes, but do you have enough letters to be delivered from Kearny, NJ to Fresno, CA to fill that box? If not, how are you going to sort/redirect the individual letters that don't fit in conveniently-sized bins?

    The USPS sorting infrastructure is just as (if not more) impressive than the actual shipping infrastructure.

  • Sure, so long as you never need to make any changes to the code. The surviving COBOL coders have gone back into comfortable retirement with the money they made fixing Y2K. So they've moved from old iron to a modern operating system; they could still reap even more benefits by recoding for modern languages and coding practices.

    There's seldom a benefit to be found in taking millions of lines of code that are working exactly as needed and re-writing them from then ground up simply because the language isn't snazzy enough. There's a large number of COBOL programmers still in the work force; even if they all charged premium if the system is maintainable it will be still be cheaper than writing a new one. Yours is the same kind of thinking that leads people into buying new cars every few years -- "Well, it will cost less than repairing the old one when it breaks down". In both cases, it is a very rare exception for the most expensive available alternative to cost less.

    But then, this is the US Postal Service. COBOL's probably fast enough for the task.

    COBOL compiles down to executable machine code (presumably ELF) -- language isn't going to affect performance here.

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

    by upside (574799) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @12:36AM (#28700449) Journal

    Sure, and how OS's use the Linux kernel but not the GNU toolchain? And how many of those (any?) are enterprise offerings? So could it well be BSD/Linux? Thanks for this useless tangent.

  • by Hal_Porter (817932) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @01:12AM (#28700601)

    Actually I've read Fortran was faster than C back in the 80's because it did not suffer from pointer aliasing and the like. Basically it was a simpler language and thus easier for a simple compiler to turn into efficient assembler. I've also see a surreal page where Basic code was translated into SSE assembler. Obviously the mapping from Basic arithmetic to SSE is pretty trivial to do. That's probably true of Fortran or Cobol but it defintely isn't true of C or C++ once the compiler has to worry about pointer aliasing. A lot of C programmers tend to concentrate on writing easy to read code and let the compiler turn it into something efficient too, it's a very different mindset from people who told the compiler exactly what sequence of operations they wanted because optimizers weren't practical.

    That being said if you look at the output of a modern C compiler it is very very good. Still back in the days when more primitive languages were popular, I think that was not the case.

  • Re:A year? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by bhiestand (157373) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @01:12AM (#28700605) Journal

    Yes, but do you have enough letters to be delivered from Kearny, NJ to Fresno, CA to fill that box? If not, how are you going to sort/redirect the individual letters that don't fit in conveniently-sized bins?

    The USPS sorting infrastructure is just as (if not more) impressive than the actual shipping infrastructure.

    Not to mention the fact that they could read my handwriting when I was five years old. Not that it's improved much.

  • Re:A year? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by JAlexoi (1085785) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @04:13AM (#28701207) Homepage
    Did you just compare the geographical sizes of US and Germany? I believe that US is just a "bit" more than 4 times larger than Germany....
  • Re:Now? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by JAlexoi (1085785) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @04:19AM (#28701241) Homepage
    Socialism, money and competition are not mutually exclusive.
    Maaaan... You in most cases rant about a US corrupted image of socialism.
  • It is Socialism. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jotaeleemeese (303437) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @04:25AM (#28701263) Homepage Journal

    Because it provides a social necessity.

    If the service was not socialized then small communicates will either not be served or would have to pay more to send (or even receive) a letter.

  • by ScrewMaster (602015) * on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @07:10AM (#28701923)

    There's seldom a benefit to be found in taking millions of lines of code that are working exactly as needed and re-writing them from then ground up simply because the language isn't snazzy enough.

    In other words, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.. Programmers often like to "fix" things (i.e., rewrite them) and you're absolutely right: the best management decision is often to leave it alone.

  • Re:Now? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ScrewMaster (602015) * on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @07:15AM (#28701943)

    I don't mean to strawman your argument, but: Do you really want your government taxing itself? Because that's a layer of absurdity that I, for one, am completely unwilling to pay for the administration of.

    Well, presumably all those millions of government employees file income tax returns.

  • by ScentCone (795499) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @07:52AM (#28702245)
    Because it provides a social necessity.

    So... any business entity that provides a "social necessity" is, thus, an example of socialism hard and successfully at work?

    How about food? I buy all of mine from private businesses that compete for my money.

    How about trash removal? Where I live, it's handled by private companies that compete for my money.

    How about fuel to heat houses and move vehicles? I don't think society would work too well without those private provided commodities.

    If the service was not socialized then small communicates will either not be served or would have to pay more to send (or even receive) a letter.

    Small communities are not served the same way as more urban areas with more customers. In rural towns, people who want to send and receive mail must, themselves, travel to a post office. In some cases, that can take hours. Shipping parcels? Not all areas are served the same way, or even close to it. Timeliness of deliveries? Depends on where you are. If you don't want to live in an easily served market, you have to live with the consequences of having different priorities. And that's reflected in the varying levels of service that the USPS provides, and the different prices they charge. This is becoming more true by the year. Especially as the very-important-to-society internet (brought to end users' homes by private companies!) makes paper mail less vital.
  • Re:A year? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jlarocco (851450) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @07:54AM (#28702257) Homepage

    If you allowed private enterprises to compete unchecked, they would cherrypick the most profitable routes (hubs, basically) and quickly bankrupt the Post Office. They'd also charge less than the Post Office on short routes that the Post Office would need to subsidize the longer routes. But if you had to regulate competitors to make sure they had the same disadvantages as the Post Office, what's the point?

    How can you even speculate about that? You have no idea what would happen because it's illegal for anybody to even try it.

    But, basically you're saying 99% of the population should be screwed because 1% of the population doesn't want to pay the true cost of their mail delivery. Why should we favor that 1%? If they want cheap mail, they can move to the city. There are many extra expenses associated with living in the middle of nowhere, I don't see why higher prices for mail shouldn't be one of them.

  • Re:A year? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by plague3106 (71849) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @08:09AM (#28702413)

    You still pay more (0.55 EUR vs. 0.44 USD), but the US service is definitely worse. In Germany, mail is delivered within half a day 99% of the time (drop it off at 5pm, get it in the mail at 9am), in the US it is two to three business days.

    Wow, talk about apples to oranges. Germany is smaller than Montana, a SINGLE STATE in the US. Also, the population of Germany is 82 million, while the US has 300 million, which means there's that much MORE mail to deliver over a MUCH larger area, much of which is rural.

    There's nothing wrong with the USPS, and your quip is just ignorant.

  • by ScentCone (795499) on Thursday July 16, 2009 @12:41PM (#28719639)
    In most cases it isn't really a competition, one company gets and area and has it has a monopoly.

    Every place I've ever lived there were many trash removal companies, and fierce competition. Some people down county from me have public pickup. Theirs is only once a week, and the pickup crew will only take some things, not others, and are notoriously obnoxious. The private company that does my development won the bid this year, and are anxious to continue to provide the services next year... so they bust their balls to do a terrific job. They know that if they're too expensive or don't do a good, polite, clean, quiet job, they'll get dumped for any of the dozen other companies clamboring to do the work.

    So, happily we don't have to deal with the tax-burdened, extra-bureaucracy, politicians-involved, jerky, too-costly, limited performance government variety (even though it might make some of the county's leftier residents happy to put more work under government control, and make the residents more dependent on the government) - instead, we get to watch the market scramble to provide the best services for the best price, and continue to scramble to do so, year in and year out. And no need to in-efficiently collect taxes for the work, launder it through government budgeting and allocation, and chase it around through more government workers to an agency that in turn has to use hugely complex contracting laws to hire four guys and a truck.

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