United Railway Signal Group, Inc

The story of how Progressive Computer Concepts has turned United Railway into a Linux shop.
Linux On The Desktop

As United continues to grow and the employee count rises, additional desktop computers are continuously needed. Having worked at places like the Supercomputer Computations Research Institute on the campus of Florida State University, where four system administrators support hundreds of Unix users (a large percentage through X Terminals), we knew that an X Terminal model would work for United. We began installing Linux-based X Terminals everywhere new desktop computers were needed. We are able to sell United new Alphas with 32MB of RAM, 15 inch monitors and no hard disks for $1000US each. This is a much cheaper alternative to deploying new Windows 95 boxes considering the cost of hardware, software, setup time and recurring maintenance. The hardware was also cheaper, and in our opinion better than even the dedicated X Terminal/Network Computer equipment that we originally investigated for this task.

The Linux/Alpha X Terminals boot over the network, NFS mount their root and usr file systems, and then open an xdm (X window manager) session on an XDMCP server. The window manager chosen for United's X Terminals was FVWM95. The engineers who have received these X Terminals rarely use MS Office type applications—Applixware is used to fill that occasional need. Netscape Navigator is used to access the URSGDOCS and Internet e-mail.

Figure 2. ApplixWord on X Terminal

The X Terminal model is working well. All of URSG's engineers have migrated to X Terminals. This has allowed United to continue to extend the useful lifespan of aging 386/486 class equipment by redeploying it in both X terminal and fat-client capacities in the wiring facilites and branch offices.

Our calculations show significant cost savings through utilizing slightly higher-end Linux-based X Terminals with fast Ethernet in place of the FAT- client CAD stations that United currently uses and deploys. PCC was a beta test site for Bentley's port of Microstation 95 to Linux. The port seemed flawless and was very promising; an academic release version has been shipping for several months. However, Bentley has not yet received the level of demand from Linux users that it deems necessary to support Microstation commercially on the Linux platform. We plan to continue to work with Bentley and to encourage the commercial release and support of Microstation for Linux.

More Recent Projects

An NCD Wincenter Multiuser NT server has been installed at URSG and more Alpha X Terminals deployed. Even administrative staff now have Linux-based X terminals on their desk. These staffers use Linux Netscape for Inter/Intranet access and e-mail, and they run office productivity applications (accounting, MS Word, MS Excel, etc.) on the Multiuser NT server.

URSG's Jacksonville wiring facility has moved to a new location, tripled in size, and had its connectivity to the main-office LAN upgraded from the 128K ISDN mentioned earlier to a 1.536MB T1.

PCC has added enhanced extranet functionality to URSGDOCS including a system designed specifically for use by CSX Transportation and all of its railway signal design contractors. This particular extranet section of URSGDOCS allows fast and well documented business transactions between CSX Transportation and its signal design contractors. The system allows contractors to make requests for circuit plans and CAD files, CSXT staffers fulfill those requests by uploading CAD files into URSGDOCS, then contractors can download those files. All transactions inside the system generate e-mail notifications to appropriate persons and to an e-mail alias that is used to archive all transactions. The transactions archive is full-text searchable and browseable. The system has been in operation since July 10, 1997 and averages approximately 2000 transactions and 500MB of compressed CAD file transfers per month.

As new systems and functionality have been added to URSGDOCS, it has been migrated to a Dual 200MHz Pentium Pro Linux server with 128MB RAM. The ursgfS1 machine has been upgraded to a uni-processor 200MHz Pentium Pro Linux server with 64MB RAM. The Wincenter server resides on Dual 150MHz Pentium Pro hardware with 128MB RAM.

The Moral of the Story

Unix, in particular Linux, combined with the GNU tools, can change a company's technology spending focus allowing it to move away from a larger, under-skilled IS staff to a smaller, higher-skilled staff or to outsourcing. A move to either results in a company receiving more reliable and more customized solutions that can easily evolve to the company's changing needs over time.

Yes, Linux means business. The work that we at Progressive Computer Concepts have done with United Railway Signal Group is a wonderful example.

Lester Hightower (hightowe@progressive-comp.com) is Vice President of Development at Progressive Computer Concepts, Inc. in Jacksonville, Florida. He has an extensive background with a wide variety of Unices. He is involved in all aspects of Unix and Internet consulting including installation, administration and systems programming.

Hank Leininger (hlein@progressive-comp.com) is Senior Systems Integrator at Progressive Computer Concepts, Inc. in Jacksonville, Florida. He has an extensive background with a wide variety of Unices. He is involved in all aspects of Unix and Internet consulting including installation, administration and systems programming.