Forecast for NWS: flash flood of Linux

'We're one of the first government agencies that's really taken the leap ... to use it in a core mission-critical application,' NWS' Barry West says of the agency's move to Linux.

Laurie DeWitt

The National Weather Service is converting its severe-weather prediction system to Linux.

Barry West, the weather service's CIO, said it's one of the first instances in government of turning over a mission-critical agency application to the open-source operating system.

In 122 NWS offices, the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System gives meteorologists a look at both observational data and supercomputer models. Human prognosticators use both kinds of information to issue forecasts, watches, warnings and advisories.

AWIPS is migrating from HP-UX, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s proprietary version of Unix, to Red Hat Linux from Red Hat Inc. of Raleigh, N.C.

'We're one of the first government agencies that's really taken the leap, not so much to use Linux'because quite a few are using it'but to use it in a core mission-critical application,' West said.

NWS recently signed a $3.3 million deal with GTSI Corp. of Chantilly, Va., to upgrade the AWIPS infrastructure.

GTSI is replacing 566 single-monitor HP systems with two-way 2.4-GHz IBM IntelliStation Z Pro workstations, said Tom Kennedy, GTSI's civilian sales director.

Each IBM system will have three flat-panel monitors from Samsung Electronics America Inc. of Irvine, Calif., Kennedy said.

Maintenance savings

GTSI proposed several Linux platforms to NWS officials, who chose the combination of IBM and Red Hat, Kennedy said. The AWIPS conversion is slated for completion by December.

West, who has been at NWS for about 15 months, said the decision to switch to Linux was made before he arrived, and the main reason was an anticipated 3:1 savings on maintenance.

'Surprisingly, performance was also a key factor, though not as big as the cost,' West said.

The weather service drew on Linux experience in segments of its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, especially the research-oriented Forecast Systems Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.

NWS also has been converting its Web server architecture to Linux over the last 12 to 18 months, West said. The bureau's www.weather.gov site is one of the most popular in government. An average 5 million to 7 million hits per day spike to 80 million hits or more when a hurricane makes landfall or a tornado touches down.

Weather service officials are making Linux part of the bureau's enterprise architecture, West said. NWS is using the Metis tool from Computas NA Inc. of Sammamish, Wash., to plan its enterprise architecture under Office of Management and Budget guidelines.

'We're also working on the target architecture for what we want two or three years from now, and Linux will be a very big part of it,' West said.

To handle citizens' questions submitted through the weather portal, NWS recently launched a customer relationship management system that runs under Linux at the back end, West said.

The CRM system, SureCode from SureCode Technologies Inc. of Herndon, Va., helps the data management division handle contracts with about 120 so-called 'Mom and Pop weather shops' that pay fees for customized weather data. Their user interface is a standard Web browser.

West said other agency CIOs aren't calling him for Linux-related advice as much as he thought they would.

'I don't know if it's a cultural shift,' West said.

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