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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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  • by ScrewMaster (602015) * on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:46PM (#28698065)
    we don't have to ask if it runs Linux.
  • A year? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland @ y a hoo.com> on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:47PM (#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 MrEricSir (398214)

      Or they could just keep jacking up the rates every year like they always do.

      • Re:A year? (Score:4, Informative)

        by rnaiguy (1304181) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:13PM (#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]
        • by jedidiah (1196)

          Is that actual inflation or the bogus inflation numbers the feds like to publish?

          • Re:A year? (Score:4, Insightful)

            by MightyYar (622222) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:55PM (#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:A year? (Score:5, Interesting)

              by Old97 (1341297) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @09:10PM (#28698743)
              I paid more for a first class stamp from the Bundespost in Germany in 1976 than I pay in the U.S. today, and the service is better. The USPS is a bargain and it's better managed than people give it credit for.
      • Re:A year? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Firehed (942385) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @09:47PM (#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.

        • Re:A year? (Score:4, Interesting)

          by FrankieBaby1986 (1035596) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @12:46AM (#28700195)
          economies of scale. LOTS AND LOTS of small, lightweight letter's, postcards, bills, etc. can fit on a plane, truck, mail car, etc. if 200 letters can fit in a 1ft by 1 ft box (likely many, many more), then that 1ft by 1ft box got $100 dollars in stamps. it typically costs about what, $10 to ship something this size & weight (can be dense) via FedEx at retail?
          • Re:A year? (Score:5, Insightful)

            by moosesocks (264553) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @01:26AM (#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.

            • Re:A year? (Score:4, Insightful)

              by bhiestand (157373) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @02:12AM (#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.

    • Only one year? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by shadowbearer (554144)

      That was my thought, too. That's pretty impressive. If it's true, whoever coordinated the move really knew what they were doing. Maybe we should elect them to the highest office in 2012 ;)

      I don't think they should drop any service, tho. But then I've never understood why Sundays were considered a "day off", even. It's just another day, no matter what religious people or anyone else consider it to be. The sun rises, the sun sets, there's nothing to differentiate it from any other day, outside

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Cowmonaut (989226)
        Remember, in less then a century ago atheism was a big taboo. Like it or not the idea of a single God has been part of the majority of American's religious beliefs since the founding. Recently the principals that were set down before that are being shaped into an "america for everybody" have been making it less of a pain in the ass to not believe in a Christian God so maybe in time we'll get mail on Sundays as well.
  • Now? (Score:2, Funny)

    by arizwebfoot (1228544) *

    With all those "savings" are we going to see a decrease in the cost of postage?

    Oh wait...

    • Re:Now? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by hedwards (940851) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:59PM (#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 je ne sais quoi (987177) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:18PM (#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 TubeSteak (669689)

        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.

        The cost of first class mail has gone up while the cost of 2nd & 3rd class mail (junk mail, catalogs, magazines, etc) has gone down.
        Not exactly what you'd expect.

      • by afabbro (33948)

        Actually, it's historically risen at a rate equal to the rate of inflation.

        The question is...why!?!? Every year the automation is better and more prevalent, the systems better, the methods improved, etc. Postage should be getting cheaper. As it is, paralleling the rate of inflation was true from 1950 to 2000. One would think that computerization, zip codes, etc. would have had some effect.

        • The last few cost increases have been primarily to cover the 1 billion dollar endowment Congress ordered them to create. There is also the rising cost of the pensions for the retirees who were working in the inefficient stone age of the mail service to take into account.

    • by Macrat (638047)
      The postage costs pay for all those million dollar homes the Post Office buys when relocating managers.
    • Re:Now? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by basementman (1475159) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:02PM (#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.
    • Re:Now? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MozeeToby (1163751) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:14PM (#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, Interesting)

      by RyuuzakiTetsuya (195424) <taiki@co[ ]et ['x.n' in gap]> on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:21PM (#28698371)

      Last week on Top Gear, they raced a standard letter sent via standard post in the UK from the south of the UK to the far north of the UK and the letter won.

      Total cost of the stamp? A fraction of a pound.

      The US is very similar. A little slower due to the extreme distances mail has to route to, but, i'd wager on mail versus delivering it yourself anyday. Not only that it's *cheap*

      • 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 st

  • Looks like (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Someone needs to get the facts!

    If they switched to Windows instead, they'd probably see twice the savings.

    Just ask the London Stock Exchange.

  • by Kenshin (43036) <kenshin&lunarworks,ca> on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:54PM (#28698131) Homepage

    They moved their package tracking system to Linux? I wonder if, when you ask it where your shipment is, it will tell you to find it yourself in a condescending manner.

    • by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland @ y a hoo.com> on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:57PM (#28698165) Homepage Journal

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

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

        by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:34PM (#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.

    • by LoadWB (592248)

      They do not have to rely on Linux for that kind of answer. I believe that was installed a long time ago under the L/GFY license.

      But this begs the question, in terms of performance differences, how old was the iron running Solaris?

    • by digitalhermit (113459) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:22PM (#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: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        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 st

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:57PM (#28698157)

    Submitted with the headline "Linux Penguin goes postal."

  • by blakedev (1397081) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:58PM (#28698175)
    Tracking's going to waste a lot of time playing around with Compiz instead of working.
    • You do have a point. The fact that Ubuntu Server doesn't come with XWindows or in fact anything installed shouldn't enter into it. :-)

      Although it's nice to see GNU/Linux winning where it was technically the best and cheapest option rather than something mandated by a manager who has just been wined and dined by big business. (Works for public service somewhere. Sees this scenario again and again)

  • I see they used the Micro Focus [microfocus.com] COBOL compiler, which is not FOSS by a long shot.
  • Postfix! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Penguinshit (591885) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:07PM (#28698251) Homepage Journal
    Now they can run a couple of Postfix servers and put themselves out of business!
  • by jmcbain (1233044) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:08PM (#28698255)
    Only old people use physical mail these days.

    If you're 30-something, you rely on email.

    If you're in your 20s, you use IM

    If you're 13 like me, it's all Twitter, all the time. Bonus: I have no need to receive packages because I shoplift everything.

  • by jnaujok (804613) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:18PM (#28698355) Homepage Journal

    1300 servers, processing 40 million transactions a day... that's about 30,800 transactions per server. Or one transaction every 2.8 seconds or so. With an entire Linux box dedicated to it.

    I work in the scan processing group at FedEx. At peak, we see over 100,000,000 transactions a day. And that's handled on 45 linux boxes, and 12 more for the database, doing upwards of 6000 transactions per second during bursts. That's a peak of about 133 transactions per second, per box. That's a little better than 0.3 TPS for the Post Office. So we have about 400 times the performance with 5% of the hardware. By that margin, I could do their processing with about 25 boxes total. That would mean another 98% savings on hardware alone.

    For some reason, I fail to be really impressed that they've gone from "Crappy performance and Expensive" to "Crappy performance and less expensive."

    I wonder if I can get the bazillion dollar contract to rewrite their system... No, wait, my name isn't "Boeing" or "Lockheed" or Ken Murtha.

    • by afabbro (33948)

      And that's handled on 45 linux boxes, and 12 more for the database, doing upwards of 6000 transactions per second during bursts.

      I'm sure they're delighted that you've posted details of their architecture on Slashdot.

    • by BikeHelmet (1437881) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:43PM (#28698529) Journal

      Yeah, but how many post offices are there? Doesn't each post office need one machine to talk to the main cluster?

      And do people mail stuff 24 hours per day, or is there a rush hour? Where everything spikes 10x as high?

      Do these servers have to do any of that optical character recognition crap to figure out where to mail stuff, or is that handled by whatever company designed that part of the system?

      There's plenty of valid reasons for why they *might* need that many servers. It could even be preparations for Christmas. Maybe they keep half of them in reserve for when they're needed?

      • by Rolgar (556636) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @01:37AM (#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 DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:51PM (#28698599)

      o we have about 400 times the performance with 5% of the hardware. By that margin, I could do their processing with about 25 boxes total. That would mean another 98% savings on hardware alone.

      Maybe their servers are in the union?

    • by PsychicX (866028) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:54PM (#28698615)
      The FedEx system doesn't handle hand written letters though, does it? You have to do a shipping label for most (all?) packages, with a digital bar code. USPS runs some very powerful OCR systems; maybe they're making the transactions so expensive. Just a thought.
      • by jnaujok (804613) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @01:28AM (#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 wowbagger (69688) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:58PM (#28698661) Homepage Journal

      Well, you make a couple of assumptions that may or may not be valid:

      1) you assume the "transactions" the USPS is doing are equivalent to the scanning FedEx does. We don't know what these "transactions" are - they could be tracking requests, they could be scanning letters, or something else.

      2) FedEx can pretty much guarantee that all items start out with a valid barcode, while USPS cannot - they have to be able to handle a large number of envelopes that have nothing but a handwritten address on them: no bar code, no machine printed labels, just hand-printed (or handwritten cursive) labels. That takes quite a bit more processing.

      • by jnaujok (804613) on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @01:38AM (#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 SEWilco (27983) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:29PM (#28698419) Journal
    This will be helpful the next time I have a COBOL package which I want tracked.
  • Typical (Score:5, Interesting)

    by afabbro (33948) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:38PM (#28698481) Homepage

    cost less than the last system, which was based on a Sun Solaris environment.

    Two thoughts:

    • This seems to be where Linux's strength is - replacing proprietary Unix.
    • How lame does the Sun salesman have to be? He couldn't get the USPS to replace their Sun boxes with Linux Sun boxes (Sun makes a complete line of x86 kit that runs Linux). Instead they went to HP. There's precious little difference between an HP x86 box and a Sun x86 box....all I can think is how lame the Sun salesman must have been.
  • Improve tracking? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MBCook (132727) <foobarsoft@foobarsoft.com> on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @09:34PM (#28698913) Homepage

    Will this allow them to improve their tracking system?

    UPS has had an amazing tracking system for years. FedEx has improve theirs, to the point they have good estimated delivery dates and can show you what's going on with your package pretty well, like UPS.

    When dealing with the post office, their system works but is... antiquated. When paying for any kind of fast shipping (overnight, two day) I can receive my package before the tracking number pulls up a package. It's not every time, but it's enough to make me not care much. What I really care about is estimated delivery dates. I want to know when I'll get my package. I usually don't care if my package is in NYC, Duluth, or San Antonio. It will get where it needs to go. I would rather have the step-by-step tracking information show up later and have things like estimated TOA show up fast.

    I remember as a kid (I'm 26) you could order something from a catalog and you had basically no idea when it would show up from UPS, etc. Today I can find out where my UPS package was last scanned, nearly up to the minute. Very cool.

    That would make a neat visualization. They should put that on their site, little packages moving along their correct routes around the country.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by moosesocks (264553)

      There's an alternate explanation -- the USPS might sort its mail in such a way that doesn't require re-scanning at every hub.

  • by True Grit (739797) * <edwcogburn@nosPaM.gmail.com> on Wednesday July 15, 2009 @02:31AM (#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". :)

I'd rather just believe that it's done by little elves running around.

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