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GPS Transitions to New Control System 170

Posted by Zonk
from the angels-on-our-shoulders dept.
gsfprez writes "It took us a long time, but the Air Force has finally moved off of the 1970's mainframe GPS control system and is now running on a new Unix-based Control System called AEP — Architecture Evolution Plan. It's important to remember that current GPS satellites are basically solar powered iPod shuffles with atomic clocks that simply playback whatever we upload into them at a precise rate. They don't actually have any idea where they are — its the control system at Schriever Air Force Base that does. The new system will be a lot cheaper to support and modify since Sun stocks things like SATA drives - while digging up Saturday Night Fever-era DASDs isn't simple. AEP will also allow us to be ahead of the curve: we're basically good to go to fly the new IIF birds."
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GPS Transitions to New Control System

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  • Yay! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:05PM (#20657587)

    They finally upgraded from 1970s technology to..

    ..Unix. Oh.

    Um.

    Yay!!!

  • Confusion (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Applekid (993327) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:05PM (#20657589)

    ... basically solar powered iPod shuffles with atomic clocks ... cheaper to support and modify since Sun stocks things like SATA drives ... good to go to fly the new IIF birds.
    Is it that it's Tuesday and I've already had enough hassle to fill a week, or was anyone else thoroughly confused by TFS?
    • by eln (21727) * on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:14PM (#20657767) Homepage
      I'm not confused, I'm pissed! The Air Force apparently had solar powered iPod shuffles way back in the 1970s while the rest of us had to wait until 2005, and ours aren't even solar powered!
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Gordonjcp (186804)
      Something conceptually similar to an iPod shuffle. Basically the GPS satellites transmit a bitstream at a very very precise clock rate. This bitstream is preprogrammed. The "iPod Shuffle" comment comes about because it's just playing back a prerecorded signal.

      It sounds like Richard Devine.
    • by bcattwoo (737354)

      ... basically solar powered iPod shuffles with atomic clocks ... cheaper to support and modify since Sun stocks things like SATA drives ... good to go to fly the new IIF birds.
      Is it that it's Tuesday and I've already had enough hassle to fill a week, or was anyone else thoroughly confused by TFS?
      Yes, this summary reads more like the incoherent ramblings of an AC post.
    • Roland? (Score:4, Funny)

      by iamlucky13 (795185) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:44PM (#20658295)

      After reading the iPod bit, I had to doublecheck to make sure the submission wasn't from you-know-how, but then I realized it both made too much sense and contained too little gobbledygook to be from him.

      However, now I'm going to be anxiously watching the firehose for an article announcing Apple's new iDecay line of atomic clocks. These will be far better than the Air Force's because they'll have built in battery packs instead of relying on solar power, and offer touch sensitive screens which will redefine the paradigm of atomic clock interfaces.

      * iDecay not recommended for people with pacemakers or sensitive to ionizing radiation. Apple does not guarantee the accuracy of iDecay. Maintenance on battery pack by non-certified personel will void warranty. Possession of an iDecay may be used as evidence of WMD's. Do not take internally. Use of iDecay near copywrited material may result in quantum entanglement with the storage medium and is a violation of the DMCA. If you experience an erection lasting more than four hours while using iDecay, your Apple-fanboi status has reached flat-out perversion and you should seek professional assistance. iDecay requires Quicktime.
  • wow. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by White Shade (57215) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:09PM (#20657689)
    "Solar powered iPod shuffles with atomic clocks" ... is that the best metaphor they could come up with?!

    how media-friendly can you get, damn....

    Why not just say that they are high-precision devices that are coordinated from the ground, and that they updated the ground software to something newer and more maintainable? Why do they have to mention a completely unrelated Apple product?

    *sigh*
    • by thegnu (557446) <thegnu@@@gmail...com> on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:21PM (#20657909) Journal
      It's like an iPhone with words on the screen, that's what. Stupid words. Shut up.
      --Steve
    • by gsfprez (27403)
      i wanted my mom to understand in case she read TFS.
    • by Brownstar (139242)
      Because most of us are familiar with what an iPod Shuffle is.

      And in those 2 words, he was able to describe to us, what it took you a whole paragraph to describe.

      • Re:wow. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by blhack (921171) * on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @04:20PM (#20659103)
        Actually the ipod shuffle thing confused me. Are they talking about the size of the device? Are saying that the device is meant to play music? Do they mean that it is simply powered by a battery? Seriously, I am completely failing to see any correlation between a military satelite and a white ego inflating piece of plastic that was built by the lowest bidder in some third world country.

        I propose a new godwin-esque law. First person to mention an apple product in a story that has absolutely NOTHING to do with apple gets 30 lashings.
        • Well, you see:
          1) an iPod shuffle has about as much processing power than a GPS satellite.
          2) both the iPod shuffle and the GPS satellites merely play information from their playlist: The GPS satellite is programmed to repeat the time plus whatever orbit information the ground station sent within the last 2-6 hours.

          I just wish my iPod could sync wirelessly from geosynchronous orbit =P
  • DASD - Now there's a term I haven't heard in a long time. I guess that it's relegated to history along with ABEND and EBCDIC.
    • I had to do some EBCDIC encoding in C# just the other day!

      http://www.yoda.arachsys.com/csharp/ebcdic/ [arachsys.com]
      • Talk to me when you do a Baudot/ASCII conversion for Ham TTY gear. Of course, it was in firmware and not written in C# but close enough.

        Oh, and I DID walk up to school both ways when I was a kid...in the snow :)
    • by ishmalius (153450)
      And RACF for security.

      One thing I noticed in the DASD photo: It's totally inaccurate. -Nobody- has ever had those old cabinets with their doors shut. They were always hanging open (if they were even attached), with rats nests of cables within and without.
      • by HTH NE1 (675604)

        One thing I noticed in the DASD photo: It's totally inaccurate. -Nobody- has ever had those old cabinets with their doors shut.

        The thing I noticed in the DASD photo is that there was nothing in it to gauge scale. They could have been as small as this paper clip holder [amazon.com] as far as I could tell... with really small badges, displays and buttons.

        But then that paper clip holder itself could be huge containing large novelty size paperclips. But then at only 87 cents it would be a really great deal!

    • and EBCDIC.

      Having cut my teeth in a CDC shop running NOS, that's EBCiheaDIC to me. 'course DISPLAY CODE wasn't much better, save for the occasional sending of :D to a terminal.

    • I trust the administrators of the system will make sure the code is robust against the epoch rollover.
  • Big Iron (Score:3, Insightful)

    by kevmatic (1133523) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:16PM (#20657801)
    I wonder what IBM mainframe they used. If it was an 360/370, couldn't they have just upgraded to a new IBM mainframe and kept the old software, after much much testing?

    I applaud them, though, for spending the money to get this done, and get rid of all the legacy crap. It will seriously pay of in the long run, even against just upgrading the hardware. Big Old Companies still using piles of FORTRAN and COBOL should learn from this.
    • Re:Big Iron (Score:4, Funny)

      by Overzeetop (214511) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:23PM (#20657941) Journal
      It's amazing what you can accomplish when your annual budget approaches a trillion dollars, isn't it?
    • Re:Big Iron (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Detritus (11846) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:28PM (#20658021) Homepage
      If the legacy crap works, it isn't crap. I never had a PDP-11 "blue screen" on me.

      Real programmers use FORTRAN, not the quiche-eating boutique language-of-the-month.

      • Amen. (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Kadin2048 (468275) *
        If the legacy crap works, it isn't crap.

        Truer words were never spoken.

      • PDP-11 (Score:4, Insightful)

        by mhollis (727905) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:47PM (#20658381) Journal

        I crashed a descendant of a PDP-11 numerous times. And not on purpose. It was an application that may not particularly have been well-written. Butt It would generally crash at least twice weekly and you just hoped you had saved recently.

        It was an RT-11 running the CMX 3600 [wikipedia.org] software.

        No BSOD but that's because it was not capable of generating a blue screen. It was green or amber. Take your pick.

        • by hughk (248126)
          RT11 was fairly clean and was widely used in environments varying from labs through to control systems without problems. It was fairly easy for user code to bring the system down (the MMU usage was basic at best). However it was rather primitive compared with another system, RSX-11M which was implemented using a separate user space. Such systems tended to just carry on working, I have seen them running steel mills down to traffic lights as well as the enroute ATC system for the North Atlantic. OTOH, I've se
      • Re:Big Iron (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ChrisA90278 (905188) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @07:00PM (#20661459)
        "If the legacy crap works, it isn't crap"

        I said that once too. But then we worked out the cost of maintainance and electrical power, in other words the montly cost to run and found a new system would pay it's own cost in under a year.

        Even at home I've unplugged systems simply due to the $0.24 per kilowatt hour cost to power them. (Using an old Pentium III running UNIX as a wifi router and firewall works well but sucks electrical power big time.) I actually saved money by replacing a working system. GPS did the same thing but on t much larger scale.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by darkonc (47285)
      They didn't want to continue using the old software -- and, given that they wanted a complete rewrite of the old code, staying with {a seriously crufty old mainframe OS that considers terminals to be wierdass cardreader/cardpunch units} would be just silly.

      The other nice thing about doing things this way is that, if the new UNIX code turns out to have nasty bugs, they can always failover to the old system. If the new system is based on an entirely new architecture, then the probability of simultaneous b

      • by Etcetera (14711)

        ...they wanted a complete rewrite of the old code, staying with {a seriously crufty old mainframe OS that considers terminals to be wierdass cardreader/cardpunch units} would be just silly.

        Whew! I'm sure glad they're moving to UNIX then! No tty [wikipedia.org]'s for [wikipedia.org] them! And it's good to know that their fancy new SATA drives won't have to deal with that legacy sequential-tape mindset [wikipedia.org]...

    • Yep... They were 370s. I worked on them at Onizuka AS out in Sunnyvale, California from 1991 to 1996. We thought they were old then, but they did the jobs flawlessly. IBM worked closely with the Air Force to get them to do real time processing instead of the normal batch processing that most mainframes do. It was a lot of fun... but I hated doing our weekly backups to approximately 50 nine-track tapes. Of course, the center i worked in didn't handle the GPS satellites, but we did handle a lot of other missi
  • Air Force has finally moved off of the 1970's mainframe GPS control system and is now running on a new Unix-based Control System

    Which release of Unix are they moving to? Would that be an SCO Unix (System V Release 3.2) or SCO UnixWare (System V Release 4) :-)

  • by thesandbender (911391) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:23PM (#20657931)
    So... someone dumps a high yield nuke (more likely a few high yield nukes) on one location and the whole GPS system goes to hell after a few days/weeks? Please tell me this isn't the case. Otherwise someone didn't think their cunning plan all the way through.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Waffle Iron (339739)
      Following the nuclear war that would ensue from such an incident, a lack of GPS service will be the least of your worries.
    • by Detritus (11846)
      They have backup systems in place.
      • Yeah, but if another someone detonated 3 or 4 nukes about 100 miles up in the atmosphere, the GPS sats would be gone for good.
        • by Detritus (11846)
          I wouldn't bet on it. I was recently reading some material on the "Argus Effect", which was demonstrated by a series of top secret high-altitude nuclear tests (Operation Argus [wikipedia.org]) in the 1950s. The tests showed that a nuclear device could be used to create large numbers of relativistic electrons, which would get trapped by the Earth's magnetic field lines. So this has been a known hazard for decades, and I know that the Air Force has done research on how to protect spacecraft from charged particles.

          CHRISTOFI

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by chiph (523845)
      Given that pretty much all our military's high-accuracy munitions depend on GPS for their "smartness", there is almost certainly a redundant control system elsewhere. Possibly with the 1st Mob or the 3rd Herd, which are expeditionary forces so they aren't sitting ducks like an Air Base is.

      Chip H.
      • by DerekLyons (302214) <`fairwater' `at' `gmail.com'> on Wednesday September 19, 2007 @04:15AM (#20664909) Homepage

        Given that pretty much all our military's high-accuracy munitions depend on GPS for their "smartness", there is almost certainly a redundant control system elsewhere. Possibly with the 1st Mob or the 3rd Herd, which are expeditionary forces so they aren't sitting ducks like an Air Base is.

        Probably not with either - as the ground control system is pretty big and delicate [1], pretty power hungry, and requires a fair number of specially trained personell [2] to operate it. It isn't something you are going to do in the back of a Humvee or a Bradley. You'd be hard pressed to do it in much of anything mobile short of the a Tico or a CVN.
         
        That being said, the current generation of GPS birds are designed to operate autonomously for (IIRC) at least a month, though it will be some years before the entire constellation is upgraded to that standard. This implies the existence of a 'cold' backup somewhere else.
         
        Insofar grandparents concern about 'high energy nukes' goes... He's pretty much out to lunch. The GPS constellation isn't as vulnerable to EMP/radiation effects as 'normal' LEO birds are because a) they are designed to be resistant to EMP, and b) the GPS constellation isn't inside the inner Van Allen belt like the birds wrecked by Starfish. You are pretty much in the situation of having to, even with nukes, take out each bird individually. (Sometimes they are close enough that you might be able to get 3-4, but the constellation is redundant enough that this won't take the system down.) So you are talking a pretty expensive and hard to hide endeavor, and being unable to take down enough of the cluster in a short enough timeframe to hamper US operations... before your own country is a glass parking lot.
         
        I know many Slashdotters may have a hard time believing this - but they did actually think this stuff through when they designed the system.
         
        [1] It's not just computers, but communications systems, precise clocks, etc... etc...
         
        [2] Not just the techs that maintain the hardware above but the analysts that work with the incoming data to generate the corrections.
    • by bcattwoo (737354)

      So... someone dumps a high yield nuke (more likely a few high yield nukes) on one location and the whole GPS system goes to hell after a few days/weeks? Please tell me this isn't the case. Otherwise someone didn't think their cunning plan all the way through.
      If someone drops a few high yield nukes on the U.S. the state of the GPS system in a few days/weeks is probably irrelevant to all parties involved.
      • If someone drops a few high yield nukes on the U.S. the state of the GPS system in a few days/weeks is probably irrelevant to all parties involved.

        Since the primary purpose of the GPS system is coordinating US (and allied) military activity, which one imagine that there would be quite a lot of in the wake of such an event, I think you are mistaken. OTOH, one imagines that there are several backup control stations ready to take over in the event of an attack on the primary one.

        • by bcattwoo (737354)

          Since the primary purpose of the GPS system is coordinating US (and allied) military activity, which one imagine that there would be quite a lot of in the wake of such an event, I think you are mistaken. OTOH, one imagines that there are several backup control stations ready to take over in the event of an attack on the primary one.

          I was thinking more along the lines that once we get to the point of lobbing nukes at each other pinpoint precision with conventional weapons becomes less of an issue.

          • I was thinking more along the lines that once we get to the point of lobbing nukes at each other pinpoint precision with conventional weapons becomes less of an issue.

            IIRC, the inertial navigation systems on SSBN's are set by periodic synchronization with the GPS system, so in a sense GPS is part of the system of lobbing nukes with pinpoint precision.

            Then again, the retaliation to a single-point nuclear attack may not be (or may not entirely be) nuclear, depending on the circumstances.

    • by PhxBlue (562201)
      It isn't. We have some backup facilities in different locations around the country in case of a scenario like this.
    • by jeffy210 (214759)
      Depends, are there only periodic uploads to update the bitstreams being relayed from the satellites, or is it a constant connection? If it's the former than it doesn't really matter what happens to the base and they'll merrily spit out data as long as they're active.
    • It's a good thing that the big nuclear weapons that they'd use to retaliate with ... don't use GPS.

      (Hint: ICBMs and SLBMs use inertial and stellar navigation for this reason.)
      • They use inertial and stellar navigation because you don't need GPS precision to hit strategic (as opposed to tactical) targets. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the newer systems incorporate diffential GPS for no other reason than, "hey, why not? One more position-fixing source isn't going to kill us".
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Starteck81 (917280)

      So... someone dumps a high yield nuke (more likely a few high yield nukes) on one location and the whole GPS system goes to hell after a few days/weeks? Please tell me this isn't the case. Otherwise someone didn't think their cunning plan all the way through. Who knows, that could have been one of the driving forces behind this up grade.

      Just because they didn't mention it in the article doesn't mean a backup site doesn't exist. Also if one doesn't exist then they should be able to create one much easier

    • by timeOday (582209)
      If they're smart enough to make a backup plan, then they're not dumb enough to include it in the press release.
    • by QuasiEvil (74356)
      Um, yeah, no with the nuking of anywhere near GPS control (Schriever AFB) - I like my house, and it's only about two miles from the boundary fence...

      Shriever is just a couple of big buildings in the middle of nowhere, inside a perimeter fence about a mile square. However, I know a couple people who used to work out there, and the place is very well secured. I'm told that nothing gets near the place without their knowledge. I'm guessing it's only gotten better as they transferred functionality from Cheyen
    • No. The "control segment" of the GPS system [kowoma.de] is built to interface redundantly with all of the satellites in orbit - this includes sites on every continent except Africa and Antarctica.
  • Uploading (Score:3, Funny)

    by russotto (537200) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:24PM (#20657957) Journal

    with atomic clocks that simply playback whatever we upload into them at a precise rate. /blockquote We, kemosabe? Who is this "we". I don't know about you, but I've never uploaded anything to the GPS satellites. Though that would be kind of cool... does Garmin sell anything which would do that? :-) :-) :-)
  • Maybe My Imagination (Score:2, Interesting)

    by gurutc (613652)
    We use GPS units to geocache, and accuracy has strangely seemed to have improved over the Summer. For those unfamiliar with GPS receiver tech, the newly available units use fast, parallel processing to greatly improve real-time sat processing. The new receiver chipsets have been problematic to use because they couldn't seem to get enough info and used echoed signals often in effort to increase accuracy. Maybe this update will put more downward bandwidth out there to help the new GPS receivers meet their
    • by gsfprez (27403) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:38PM (#20658181)
      That accuracy seemed to have improved a number of individual times during the winter and summer is completely consistent with the way the transition practice runs and actual transition event took place.

      Increased bandwidth: No, absoultely not in any way. Nothing is different parameter-wise with this transition from the user perspective. In fact, that was one of the hardest parts of the transition - to make the new system interact with the user segment (thru the Space segment.. aka: the satellites) in the exact same way as the old system.

      I apologize for not being more specific than that... i also stated in my submission that i am extremely hesitant to say anything unless i'm 100% sure that its public knowledge.

      So, if you think i'm beating around the bush, you're right. I'm not doing it for effect.. i'm doing it to keep my job and because security is paramount.. not just for US folks, but for everyone that uses GPS.. and i hear a few people are getting into it these days... kinda like CB radios and that Internet thing.
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by gurutc (613652)
        Well thank you for confirming my benevolent conspiracy theory! But would more Sats improve the new receivers' performance? Thanks for any info -
    • by Arimus (198136)
      Echoed signals will not improve accuracy. An echoed or multipath signal will decrease it. GPS uses a precise time signal to calculate the transmission delay from satellite to receiver. Multipath signals have an additional delay factor, which while very slight can throw the accuracy off...
  • by mhall119 (1035984) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:28PM (#20658029) Homepage Journal

    It's important to remember that current GPS satellites are basically solar powered iPod shuffles with atomic clocks
    It seems that the Air Force has figured out how to weaponize Steve Job's Reality Distortion Field. Now instead of threatening to turn the middle east into radioactive glass, we can threaten to turn it into shiny white plastic. Finally world domination that "Just Works".
  • by gsfprez (27403) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:32PM (#20658079)
    the current system is 70's era. It still uses 9-tracks, DASD units, and something called jovial that no one but old engineers with pants up to their chests have even heard of. The parts are freakish in their weight, their mechanical ways, and how unobtainable and unsupportable most everything about the old system is in 2007.

    The new system is modern. You can buy the machines from Sun today online. The OS is still updated and supported. The parts are commonplace like SATA drives, USB DVD drives, Sun workstations, etc. Unix may not be some newfangled operating system, but i can line up 1000 unix-savvy 30 year old-ish engineers and sysadmins for every one 60 year old-ish engineer that understands how to work with the IBM mainframes and jovial.

    The savings comes only to US taxpayers - because its going to be way easier to for "us" (US citizens) to pay for younger engineers that are not all about to retire and younger hardware and software that shouldn't have been retired 20 years ago. "We" (US citizens) can pay less to keep GPS going now. The rest of the world.. well, i can't help you with costs since you've never paid for this thing. I'd just say "thanks" and leave it at that.

    the iPod shuffle reference is to the fact that all the shuffle does is get music uploaded into it and play it back... it does *nothing* else. Okay... with that example in your mind... that's the same basic thing that GPS satellites do... "we" (US citizens) upload them with what to playback, and they play it back - and they have a clock to make sure they play it back at the right speed.... they practically do nothing more than that.

    yeah, my headline was shortend to save room, but in the end, i had to end-up retyping it here. I wish they would have simply said .... "click to read more"... but i wish for lots of shit... it doesn't make me sad.
    • by Stele (9443) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:46PM (#20658349) Homepage
      The savings comes only to US taxpayers - because its going to be way easier to for "us" (US citizens) to pay for younger engineers that are not all about to retire and younger hardware and software that shouldn't have been retired 20 years ago. "We" (US citizens) can pay less to keep GPS going now.

      Great! When can I expect my taxes to go down because of this?
    • by Santheman (1158613) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:48PM (#20658389)
      I was at "Schriever" (Falcon back then) from 1992 to 1994 and the GPS DASDs were being replaced. I know, as I was in the GPS module on a daily basis and the new drive enclosures were microscopic compared to the DASDs. Not sure where the GPS DASD references are coming from. The GPS module was the first to replace the DASDs as they had all the money. San
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      I was curious,
      I've worked on mainframes in the last few years. IBM is very much in the business of updating and supporting them. There are new versions of z/OS and z/VM that are as up to date and much more feature rich and reliable than most other platform OS. I guess another point I would make is that there is no better clustering available for reliability and geographical disparity than SYSPLEX in IBM z/OS. We have CECs in US and UK, and elsewhere, and all run off t
      • The mainframe was literally designed for 99.999% uptime, I think that's about 3-7 minutes of downtime per year (if memory serves at all)

        That's what everyone tells me, but none of the mainframes I ever interact with in any way have anywhere near that kid of uptime.

        My bank is run by a mainframe, but I cannot log into my account due to "system maintenence" every sunday early AM.

        When I was in college a couple years ago the administrative stuff related to scheduling had a mainframe behind it (running CICS or som

    • by toddestan (632714)
      The new system is modern. You can buy the machines from Sun today online. The OS is still updated and supported. The parts are commonplace like SATA drives, USB DVD drives, Sun workstations, etc.

      I'm sure that in 2037, we'll be laughing at the idea of using DVDs, while scratching our heads trying to remember what SATA and USB was.
    • by ediron2 (246908) *
      Um, baloney.

      Everyone knows that slashdot editors is an oxymoron.

      OTOH, if they edited *content* out of your submission and yet can't find the three seconds to do keyword checks for dupes and/or to fix typos, heads oughta freakin' roll.

      ---
      Still waiting for a better slashdot.
  • My company does turns the 'frames over every 18-24 months for around $2M. To me at least, it seems like $800M would've kept them on the cutting edge of z/Series tech for oh, say, 400 years?
    • by PhxBlue (562201) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:59PM (#20658643) Homepage Journal

      It's more than just the mainframe ... in fact, that was probably the cheap part. The expensive part was developing software that:

      • Can communicate with each of the satellites currently on-orbit. We have GPS Block II, II-A, II-R, II-R(M), and (soon) II-F satellites in orbit, and each block speaks a slightly different language.
      • Transmits the same timing and navigation data that the satellites are used to getting from the old system. I don't know much about the technical aspects of that, but I know it's not easy.
      • Is easier to maintain. I don't know what language the new system was written in, but I imagine it's easier to support than code that was written 22 years ago.
      • Works without people noticing. This is the toughest part, and it's why the Space and Missile Systems Center commander said that this is like swapping out an engine while the car's driving down the highway at 65 mph. Think about how often in the past 15 years or so you've had to worry about whether or not you would have GPS.

      A lot was on the line with this -- the Air Force has bombs and cargo pallets that rely on GPS for precision drops. The Army has a GPS-aided artillery system now. The financial sector uses the GPS timing signal for transaction management. A lot of the $800 million was no doubt an investment in testing the system so that, when it finally came online, the poop wouldn't hit the proverbial fan.

    • There's very little information to go by, but chances are if you try to rationalize this particular IT project on the basis of generally accepted accounting principles or business economics you'll quickly go crazy. And actually I'd give you more than 400 years. First of all, you're assuming the best alternative is zero. Of course it isn't; not even close. Then, hardware costs have been declining, both in real and nominal terms, and mainframes are no different in that respect. There's also net present value:

  • by ErichTheRed (39327) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @03:56PM (#20658599)
    This is by no means a "keep the legacy crap" rant -- systems you can't buy parts for without an unlimited budget should be retired ASAP.

    However, I wonder who's handling the conversion for them, or if the Air Force is doing it themselves. I've seen great legacy conversion projects, and been involved in some really awful ones. One problem is just a lack of people who know enough about the "old" system to implement the software in the "new" side. The other, and far worse one is when companies (not militaries, mind you) bring in contractors who know _nothing_ about the hidden surprises in the old system, or nothing about the actual real-world application the computer is supporting.

    As long as the system's not running J2EE or outsourced to a bunch of "expert" consultants, I'm guessing we're fine. But there is one key thing that's lost on "modern" IT -- proven systems work. Just because something is new doesn't mean it will work better! This is why I'm glad they stuck with UNIX instead of Linux or Windows.

    Side note, how much do you think IBM was charging to maintain that monster??
    • by PhxBlue (562201) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @04:04PM (#20658761) Homepage Journal
      There were a lot of agencies involved. The GPS Wing at Los Angeles AFB was the procurement agency for the new system. Other federal agencies had to be involved with the process, because they're stakeholders -- the Department of Agriculture and the FAA, for example, have a vested interest in making sure GPS "just works."

      The 2nd Space Operations Squadron and the 19th Space Operations Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base are the primary operators of GPS. Within the squadrons, you have a wide variety of expertise -- airmen, government civilians, and contractors from the companies that developed both the new ground segment and the satellites that are on-station. Some of them are two-stripers just out of technical school ... some are contractors who've been in the business just as long as GPS itself.

    • by gsfprez (27403)
      the GPS experts are distinct from the computer system experts to a degree.

      GPS is math and database. Period. That's all there is to it. Kalman filter and database, to be precise.

      The GPS experts that know math have gone nowhere, and they are shit-in-your-pants scary smart and they still cost you $5000+/hr. There are new GPS experts that are being tended and watered and grown by the soon-to-retire GPS experts. I am constantly amazed at the time that they take not only to build up the next generation, but
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        > Its not cheap - but i ask you - can you name the other globally available, centrally controlled,
        > free to use resource on the planet and above it?

        Catholicism?

        Iridium isn't free, but it's also been a God-send.

    • by hawk (1151)
      >However, I wonder who's handling the conversion for them,

      After passing three cars driven into walls with one plane into the cliff in the distance, you'll know :)

      hawk
  • by KC1P (907742)
    Great, they spent a ton of money so that -- what, GPS will *work*? It already did!

    Upgrading from 1970s technology to Unix? Unix *is* from the 1970s! The whole reason most slashdotters think it's the whole world is because they grew up with it -- i.e. it's "always" been here. OK it's been updated a lot since the old days but so have IBM mainframes. DASDs are SCSI disks these days.

    Sorry to rant, I'm just so sick of companies/governments pouring resources into replacing working systems just because the cu
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by bteeter (25807)
      Yeah, OK.

      So it works _now_ on the mainframe and that's great. What happens when it breaks? Who's going to fix it if no one has expertise on that dinosaur of a system anymore? Someone who charges a very, very high rate, no doubt, because their skills are exceedingly rare. Not to mention getting parts for it if hardware breaks.

      Its the same scenario that we all deal with, with our home PC/Mac systems. Sure we could all surf the net with 10 year old Pentium PC's. But at some point the cost to:

      -Find and p
      • by PhxBlue (562201)

        Plus the cost of our wasted time waiting for old equipment. Eventually, maintaining the old exceeds the cost of purchasing new. This happens with almost every piece of equipment. Cars, tractors, computers, houses, clothes, shoes, etc.
        QFT. I would have thought that anyone who knew anything about software development already knew about the "bathtub" effect.
  • by Animats (122034) on Tuesday September 18, 2007 @04:26PM (#20659223) Homepage

    The previous system, installed at the Satellite Control Facility [209.165.152.119], or "Blue Cube" (Onizuka AFB) in Sunnyvale, was physically huge. It was the Technology that Put Men On the Moon: Philco consoles, just like in Apollo Control.

    Each time a satellite needed a trajectory adjustment, it took three computers and lots of people. The signal processing was done in something called an Emulated Buffer Controller, which was a transistorized device emulating a previous tube device. The real-time processing was done on one of several UNIVAC 490 series machines from the 1960s, and the trajectory computation was done on a CDC 3800 mainframe from the 1960s.

    All this gear was interconnected through big manual patchboards, where, for each satellite pass, people plugged in cables to pass data from the ground station links to the buffer controller to the UNIVAC machine to the CDC machine to the console system.

    This operation just drove the satellites, not the payload. The USAF, in a very Air Force way, makes a strong distinction between "driving the bus" and operating the payload. Anything that involved commanding the satellite to move or change orientation went through the Satellite Control Facility. Payloads (GPS, cameras, receivers, etc.) were controlled by the using agencies elsewhere, over separate data links.

    The SCF's ground stations had (and still have) large (20 meter) steerable dishes that can communicate with their satellites over a low-bandwidth link regardless of the satellite's orientation, even if it's tumbling. There are about eight ground stations, spaced around the world, and they can track as well as communicate. Once the satellite is properly stabilized and oriented, the wide bandwidth directional links used by the payload come up. Those use smaller ground antennas, so as not to tie up the big tracking dishes.

    This was finally phased out in the late 1980s, when control moved to Falcon AFB. Still, during the entire history of the Satellite Control Facility at the Blue Cube, no satellite was ever lost due to an operational error there. That's partly why upgrades were delayed.

    The upgrades generally maintained the structure of the system, without doing a complete redesign. (A complete redesign was tried once, in the early 1980s. It flopped.)

    • by gsfprez (27403)
      that would be the previous system to the now previous system. The previous system to the new system is also at Schriever. The system you're referring to (for GPS control) was previous to the system here at Schriever.

      And that's odd - i had no idea that they used to fly GPS from the blue cube... i always was under the impression that we just don't talk about the blue cube.
  • In the past I have often wondered why the EU thought they needed a GPS system of their own. Now I know why they made Galileo [europa.eu]. Thanks.
  • good-ol' days (Score:2, Insightful)

    by recharged95 (782975)
    " It's important to remember that current GPS satellites are basically solar powered iPod shuffles with atomic clocks that simply playback whatever we upload into them at a precise rate. "

    And it better stay that way.

    I don't want a tomahawk crashing into my house accidentally because of some ipod/windows update or ACPI issue in the intel firmware, or since a core had to goto a wait state for some multitasking thing. Sometimes too many features bury the original intent.

    Technology isn't a hammer looking

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