After a switch to Linux, IT shop modernizes 15-year-old Cobol system without altering code

GCN Awards The U.S. Postal Service’s Product Tracking System is the heart and soul of its delivery process, with an interface familiar to anyone who has gone to to track or confirm delivery of a letter or package.

To address growing demands from customers for increased visibility of their packages as they travel through the postal network, USPS needed to upgrade its 15-year-old mainframe-based PTS to increase the number of packages the system could process. Moreover, officials were looking to ensure low-cost scalability to meet future demands and provide more detailed information capabilities for customers.

Several options were considered, said John Byrne, manager of application development and head of USPS’ Integrated Business Solutions Centers. Adding more processing power to the mainframe system seemed like a straightforward approach, but officials decided it would be too costly.

Developers at the US Postal Service

Behind The interface: USPS developers working with a Cobol compiler for Linux were able to modernize functions a piece at a time.

Other options, such as moving the PTS application to less expensive commodity hardware or rewriting the application in another language and putting it on new servers, were also deemed too expensive, time-consuming and risky.

USPS officials didn’t want to lose valuable business logic developed over 15 years, so they chose to deploy PTS within the existing mainframe environment – running the legacy Cobol application through modernization software – without altering any lines of code, Byrne said.

The move fits in with USPS’ larger plan to standardize on the open-source and less expensive Linux operating system, he said. By moving PTS from the proprietary and more expensive side of the mainframe to the portion running Linux, USPS officials realized they could cut down on software costs.

IBM ported Linux to its mainframe series 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.

USPS had to find a way to take source code written in Cobol and reuse it on Linux. Cobol was created 50 years ago to mimic the way people talked. So instead of developers writing in machine code, they could write instructions in English, Byrne said.

The Postal Service opted to use Micro Focus Studio for Enterprise Edition, which contains a compiler for Linux that takes the Cobol source code and converts it into an executable that will run on Linux, he said.

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

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

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

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

The move to Linux helps the USPS' business and marketing departments 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.

USPS is inserting 40 million events a day, Byrne said.

“These improvements to the Postal Service's Product Tracking System will enhance ease of use for our customers with increased tracking events and visibility of their packages as they travel through the Postal Service's vast delivery network,” said Gary Reblin, USPS vice president for Expedited Shipping.

“The USPS IT team successfully enhanced our ability to provide best-in-class tracking visibility to our customers and shipping partners,” he said.

The move to Linux has required USPS to retrain some of its technical staff members and bring in contractors with Linux experience.

Technical people are accustomed to the technology they grew up on and trained on, Byrne noted. “Technical people will use the bag of tricks that they have experience with, and this was a new bag of tricks,” he said.

Staff members had to learn new technologies in order to make the project work, which took them out of their comfort zones, Byrne said. “They wanted to solve [problems] using the old ways, and the old ways are too costly.”

“We had to rethink that and retool people and actually bring in new resources such as contracting firms,” he said, and IT infrastructure people have undergone Linux training over the past nine months.


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