FAA aims to finish tracking system upgrade by 2008

FAA aims to finish tracking system upgrade by 2008

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

The Federal Aviation Administration plans to modernize its method of tracking air traffic by 2008 but doesn't have a specific plan for doing so, FAA officials say.

Aging IBM 3830 mainframes were re-placed with 63 IBM 9672 Generation 3 servers in October to avert potential year 2000 problems, but air traffic controllers continue to rely on 30-year-old software to track planes.

Randy Schwitz, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), likened the hardware re-placement to building a bridge using state-of-the-art steel beams for support and 100-year-old wood for the roadway.

Although the old computers were re-placed, the new servers continue to run the National Airspace System software under the IBM System/370 instruction set emulation mode, meaning the hardware acts as if it is still taking instructions under the old system. An upgrade would let the software operate under the IBM System/390 instruction set, which is native to the new servers, said Bill Voss, director of FAA's Office of Air Traffic Systems Development.

The servers run under an operating system that isn't based on the Structured Query Language or other common technology and is customized for FAA, Voss said. The database is maintained as in memory data tables.

Phase 2, which has not been scheduled, calls for the software to run native on the servers, said Jay Merkle, FAA's chief systems engineer for en route systems.

Although FAA has a plan to modernize its tracking system architecture, the plan contains few specifics, and there is no timetable for the $607.2 million software and peripherals upgrade that is expected to take 10 years to complete, FAA officials said.

But a maintenance deal with IBM ends in 2008, Merkle said. 'By then we'll have to have an answer on what to do not only with hardware but with the software,' he said.

Voss said the system was designed to act as a sort of circuit breaker.

'The current architecture allows the failure of a peripheral or the overflow of a buffer to take the Host computer down,' Voss said. FAA has distributed patches to correct the problems that caused the systems outages in the East, which were blamed on the failure of a peripheral in Boston and on a buffer overflow in Washington, he said.

With the year 2000 rollover done and the computer replacements nearly complete, officials can focus on replacing the software, Merkle said. But 'we don't have infinite resources to dedicate to the problem.'

Phase 3 would include replacing some peripherals and installing software to make them compatible with the new servers. Phase 4 would involve replacing the remaining storage and tape systems and upgrading software.

NATCA has lobbied Congress for funding to modernize FAA's tracking system. NATCA president Michael McNally in February testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation.

'We are at a critical point in the modernization process,' he said. 'The need for a multiyear, multistep commitment to air traffic control modernization with continuous funding must remain a top priority.'

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