October 17, 2003

Environment Canada uses Linux to track hurricanes, predict, and analyse weather

Author: David 'cdlu' Graham

On September 27, Hurricane Juan was approaching the Canadian Maritime Provinces. The Canadian Hurricane Centre tracked the hurricane's progress as it approached the coast of Nova Scotia and ultimately delivered quite a wallop. A few days later, CBC's The National ran a documentary about the storm and its aftermath. The documentary showed the inside of the
hurricane centre before it was itself evacuated, including a shot of a room full of computers tracking the progress of the hurricane. They were all running KDE.

Interested in knowing more, I contacted Environment Canada's Hurricane Centre and asked if I could speak to someone about their use of Linux.
A few days later, I was on the phone with Ross Ashbourne, Manager of Informatics at Environment Canada in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
Yes, he told me, not only does the Hurricane Centre use Linux, but all Canadian weather centres use Linux.

A few years ago, Environment Canada needed to upgrade its aging fleet of three to four hundred HP-UX workstations used for weather prediction, forecasting, and analysis. They explored several options.

The first option was to upgrade their existing hardware. At $20,000 per Unix workstation, this would add up to at least $6 million, not counting the ongoing licensing fees for the operating system they would be forced to pay.
That cost was prohibitive, even for a government department.

Next, they considered two x86 hardware options, beginning with Microsoft's Windows operating system. All of Environment Canada's prediction, forecasting, and analysis software is written in-house, so it would have been possible to port all the code to run on the new platform on top of the new operating system.
But Linux appeared to be a better option, because it would be easier to port the applications from HP-UX to Linux.

Environment Canada acquired some test machines, installed Linux, and ran their software. The only issue they had was that the software had a colour bit depth of 8 bits, and the new hardware supported 24-bit colour depth. The colour maps ran in 256 colours and that was quickly fixed.

The weather offices of Environment Canada quickly rolled out upgraded hardware. The x86-based systems cost $6,000 per workstation and had no licensing fees. They worked faster than the old Unix systems and allowed Environment Canada to replace its old proprietary hardware and software at a savings of $14,000 plus licensing fees per seat, or over $4 milion across the whole department.

The weather centres are now using Red Hat Linux 7.2 across the board on their workstations, and are upgrading to version 9 of the Red Hat distribution. While Environment Canada has not had need to modify the kernel at all, or anything other than its own in-house software. Because of that and the specialised nature of its software, Environment Canada has no plans to release any software under any open source licenses.

Environment Canada used to use a proprietary Unix system for its computers that converted radar data into useful charts and information. The system was running at its capacity and was upgraded to run on a Linux cluster alongside the workstations and now performs much better without being maxed out.

Mr. Ashbourne reports that there was no objection to the use of Linux in the weather centres. As far as the weather forecasters and others using the workstations are concerned, they have a tool that works faster and just as well as before.

The one debate they did have was the question of whether to use KDE or GNOME. For no particular technical reason
other than the need for uniformity, KDE was selected.

Is Environment Canada satisfied with Linux? Yes, says Mr. Ashbourne. He recommends that other government departments using Unix explore the option of upgrading
to Linux.


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