USPS goes open-source with tracking system

Postal Service IT officials have upgraded the service's 15-year-old mainframe system to handle more transactions and lower the cost of operating the system.

If you’ve gone to USPS.com 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.

USPS.gov screen capture

The 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.

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