USPS goes open-source with tracking system

If you’ve gone to to track and confirm delivery of a letter or package, you’ve used the U.S. Postal Service’s Product Tracking System (PTS) and probably not known it. And you might not have noticed either when USPS moved the system to open source.

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Postal Service information technology officials have upgraded the 15-year-old, mainframe-based system to handle more transactions and lower the cost of operating the system. screen captureThe work to upgrade PTS is part of a larger plan to standardize on the open-source and less expensive Linux operating system, said John Byrne, manager of application development and head of USPS’ Integrated Business Solutions Centers.

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

However, the mainframe story is one of migration and reuse of valuable business logic developed over 15 years, Byrne said.

“We’ve hosted [PTS] on the mainframe, and the mainframe is a proprietary environment, meaning you have to pay the software vendors a certain price to use their software,” Byrnesaid . “We wanted to take advantage of Linux and open source. We want to grow the scanned events without having to pay more software costs. So we started down the path to Linux.”

In recent years, surveys of mainframe users conducted by consulting firm Gartner indicate that pricing of third-party and even IBM software have inhibited mainframe growth.

IBM ported Linux to the big iron machines several years ago as a way for organizations to consolidate workloads. IBM now offers System Z series mainframes that are pure Linux and others that are a mixture of propriety and Linux operating systems.

Nearly 2,800 of the 5,000 unique applications available on the System Z platform are Linux-based, according to IBM. Linux accounted for about half of the roughly 1,000 new or updated applications produced for the IBM mainframe in 2008, IBM officials said.

Moving Cobol to Linux

For its part, USPS had to find a way to take source code written in Cobol and reuse it on Linux. Cobol, which marks its fiftieth anniversary this year, was created to mimic the way people talked. So instead of developers writing in machine code, they could write instructions in English, Byrne said.

After evaluating several products, USPS brought in Micro Focus’ Compiler for Linux, which takes the Cobol source code and converts it into an executable that will run on Linux, he said.

USPS' business and marketing departments wanted to expand the number of events inserted into PTS’ database. 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.

“All of these events get inserted into the database, all the programming checks for logic, checks for duplicates, checks for valid numbers — even United Parcel Service and Federal Express shipments — are inserted through a series of Cobol programming languages that have been developed over the last 15 years,” Byrne said.

“We’re inserting like 40 million events a day,” he added.

The compiler lets developers move Cobol code to the Linux portion of the mainframe without rewriting source code, Byrne said.

“Nobody wants to take the risk of trying to redesign a program,” said Bill Errico, vice president of federal sales and marketing at Micro Focus. He said USPS used a series of the company’s Studio product line that supports the development and extension of Cobol applications for deployment to Windows, Unix and Linux.

“There’s a lot of risk in taking those working applications and starting over and redoing them and lots of costs," he said. "So the concept of reusing the business logic that is applicable in today’s environment makes a lot of sense.”

Micro Focus’ compiler takes applications and modernizes them in a framework named the Integrated Facility for Linux (IFL), a co-processor within the IBM Z series, Errico said.

IFL lets developers take applications that might traditionally be transferred to a server environment and keeps them within the mainframe without all of the expenses of the large enterprise system, he said.

Running Linux workloads on IFL does not result in any increased IBM software charges for System Z operating systems and middleware, IBM officials said.

By using the Cobol compiler for Linux, USPS could perform tasks a piece at a time, Byrne said. The PTS has 56 transaction types, such as acceptance scans and delivery confirmations, that have now all been migrated to Linux.

Migration work started last summer, and by the beginning of the year, the improved PTS on mainframe Linux was operational, Byrne said.

There were some hiccups along the way. For instance, the Cobol code converted to Linux was disconnecting with the database. “Even on heavy days, it was fine, but some days, it would disconnect and cause us to have to restart manually,” Byrne said.

Developers working on the project had to write software code to restart the system automatically. “We went over this with IBM, and they said you probably have to put some custom code in there,” Byrne said.

Byrne declined to talk about specific savings USPS has gotten from the move to Linux.

“We’re achieving significant savings moving from the Sun to the HP environment — obviously not as materially as the IBM proprietary environment to Linux because the mainframe has had the higher cost to begin with and farther to fall,” he said.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Tue, Feb 15, 2011 Boxy South Africa

Can anyone tell me how much an uncapped broadband Internet service subscription costs in the US, because a 2 Terabyte hard drive every 170 days would be required to capture and store a 128 character data string at 32bit UCS and this would equal a total of 512 bytes of data per incertion. These calculations have been made at the highest possible character quality whilst only an 8 bit code per charachter and perhaps a 64 character length data string might be all that is required, or just 64 bytes per "insertion" - the data in that case would be handled a lot faster and of course a lot cheaper if 64 bytes were the case and anytime someone wanted it printed for any reason, a handling program could do that for you in 64 inch pica from system memory if you liked. Now if one would need the excessive data requirements of 512 bytes per "insetion" mirrored and backed up for longer than six months, it would cost around $200 these days for 2 new 2Tb hard drives, every six months The entire system could easily run on a standard PC, because i'm getting the jist from this report that the existing system has been utilising roomfulls of 15 year old IBM mainframes. 15 years ago mainframes would have been running at 100 Mhz and so today a single Desktop PC has the processing power of several roomfuls of 15 year old mainframes. Then all we have to do is find out how much they pay Mr Burne annually and voila, we could deduct this off of the $ 396 million per annum to see exactly how many million percent profit USPS make on tracking an item at 19 cents a throw and how many billion % profit it is at 75cents. The irony is that all postal items have to be scanned anyway, whether they're trackable, or not and that in order to run a postal service in today's day and age, computers are required to run the system anyway. Yet, it takes a simple little thing like "track and trace". (Trade Mark, Registered Copyright, or whatever else it may be that someone perhaps gets a percentage in royalty payment for from the use of the name out of - in order to finance their next election campaign, or to finance their 200ft yacht moored of an island off the Caribean maybe?) for someone to now decide that USPS need to come out of the dinosaur days and to upgrade their systems. How quaint? Thank the Lord for small mercies and some open source too, because without it, i doubt the penny pinching old faggots who hold the purse strings at USPS would have let Mr Burne bring them out of near extinction enough to compete with the Mafia styled competition who are leading USPS toward competing with their Mafia styled practices, at Mafia styled prices.

Tue, Feb 15, 2011 Boxy South Africa

Now for aguements sake, let's just say that it takes 2 events per day for each item tracked (one for incomming and one for outgoing) and so therefore USPS handels 20 million tracked postal items each day. Lets discount this even further by saying that on average it takes 5 days for delivery, so that we only have 4 million items delivered through the USPS system each day, while another 4 million enter into the system each day. Lets say 75% of these items are sent by people with online postal ordering facilities. An Internet connection, a USB scale (optional), a laser printer and a credit facility would be the ideal requirements in order to handle this process and to receive it at the discounted DIYATW price of 0.19c through an online transaction from your home, or business. Let's assume then, that 75% of the people who post off trackable items, do it the DIYATW (do it yourself all the way) and so therefore 75% of 4,000,000 transactions costing 0.19 cents per item = $570,000. Now this is how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, because let's add the 25% for the poor people who might pay for this service over the counter, but only because they do not have access to the required facilities as described above. On average it would cost around 0.75 cents = $750,000 for people to use DIY without the ATW and to utilise what little of their own reserves to do so. The extra 56 cents i expect is so that a manequin can accept it over the counter, instead of the postman banging your wife, or your secretary when collecting it from your home, or business. We then come to an annual income from tracking service fees alone of $396,000,000 per annum. Calculations are based on a nice round figure and considdered that the service operates for 300 working days (excluding Sundays and public holidays) per year. A lot of hard working e-Bay and Amazon peoples business, such as posting off their items sold during the week, is done on a Saturday, because they have other jobs and so one can definitely not exclude it. Saturday is probably one of the most busy days of the week for parcel post at USPS, yet they seem to winge about spending a few dollars on computer equipment and software and fight to have Saturday off instead. All this, whilst forecasting a $232 billion loss over the next 10 years!

Tue, Feb 15, 2011 Boxy South Africa

Mr Byrne, please stop using bedroom terms in the computer world in a postal environment. It would be much more appropriate to use the term "capturing 40 million events a day". The word capturing might also add a certain ambiance and atmosphere, because after all it would capture the essence of what the postal system once was. It was once a system that was completely free and where people left their letters under a rock, or hidden in a tree and when one fine day a ship came past, these items would be collected and delivered free of charge.

Thu, Sep 10, 2009

The app is not open source, just the OS. And Solaris is open source, too, so they were already open source in that respect.

Fri, Jul 10, 2009

Wow! That's exciting!!

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