How the FAA Is Bringing Its Air Traffic Systems into the 21st Century

EXCLUSIVE: The embattled FAA, which has suffered a number of embarrassing flight-plan system crashes this year, has upgraded its legacy internal business systems to a new open-systems server and storage infrastructure supplied by Sun Microsystems and an IP network provided by Cisco Systems. If all goes as planned, this architecture may replace critical systems that directly affect all air travelers in the United States.

It has endured a lot of grief lately due to some well-documented crashes of its national flight plan-filing system, but the Federal Aviation Administration is finally starting to bring its Cold War-era IT systems into the new century.
In the last several months, the FAA has upgraded its legacy internal business systems to a new open-systems server and storage infrastructure supplied by Sun Microsystems and an IP network provided by Cisco Systems. These systems currently handle all the agency's nonflight-related administrative functions, including the FAA's human resources information, email, messaging, internal document routing and storage.
However, the word from the systems integrator, longtime government contractor GTSI, is that this new deployment is opening the eyes of key people at the FAA's IT hierarchy and has so impressed them with its performance and scalability they are now considering bringing critical air traffic systems up-to-date with similar infrastructure by early next year.
The National Airspace Data Interchange Network's current mainframe-based system, an integral part of the overall NAS (National Air Space) traffic system that processes an average of 1.5 million messages per day, is obsolete and has a history of technical issues. Travel disruptions due to these breakdowns are not out of the ordinary, according to knowledgeable air industry sources.
As a result, industry analysts and a number of former Federal Aviation Administration staff members said they believe there is heightened likelihood of a major air traffic stoppage, as was demonstrated three times this summer by the crash of the system head in Atlanta. They also are concerned about increasing vulnerability to terrorist cyber-attacks.
The most recent example of this happened on Aug. 26, when a corrupt file entered the flight plan system and brought it down for about 90 minutes during a high-traffic period late in the day on the East Coast. This was not an isolated incident, as the FAA's chief administrator originally had told the media. Similar crashes occurred on Aug. 21 and in June, FAA records show.
People connected with this problem inside and outside the FAA agreed that the system needs to be upgraded as soon as possible. The main issues have been: a) agreement on what kind of system to install for the long term; and, of course, b) how to pay for it.
After more than five years of talk, research, evaluation, planning, testing and quality assurance work, it looks as though a breakthrough finally has been made.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris Preimesberger

Chris Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK, responsible in part for the publication's coverage areas. In his 10 years and more than 3,500 stories at eWEEK, he has distinguished...