September 9, 2005

Hurricane tracking site powered by Linux

Author: Tina Gasperson

For people living in the path of potential hurricane fury, the Internet can be an important source for the latest information about storm tracks and projections. FLHurricane.com is one of the most popular tropical weather blogs in existence. It gets millions of hits during hurricane season, serves up gigabytes of image data, and runs on custom software and Linux.Programmer Mike Cornelius and his brother John founded FLHurricane back in 1993, before the World Wide Web drew huge numbers to the Internet. They ran it on a bulletin board system that got started after their cousin suffered through Hurricane Andrew's Category 5 fury in South Florida. "We decided to come up with something to help track them," Cornelius says. He wrote up a tracking program in C, and allowed visitors to download the software for free.

They set up their first Web site in 1995, a busy year for storms, as Cornelius recalls. "We started to automate tasks and we learned more about the Web and started developing more and more software for the site." Cornelius and his brother decided to start running the tracking and projection software as a Web application written in PHP. It was easier for them to fix problems and add new features, and it was easier for users to simply visit a site rather than having to install and configure the software themselves.

From the beginning, the FLHurricane.com Web site ran on Linux. Not just the Web server, but the data and image servers as well all run on CentOS. Cornelius learned about Linux during his days as a student at the University of Central Florida. Today he works as a Windows developer for a company in Orlando that provides software for Orange County government recording offices. "I wanted to keep up with both [Linux and Windows] -- I didn't want to get too out of the picture with either," Cornelius says. That's why he decided to create and run the site in Linux. "That way I could learn the best of both."

At first the site was hosted on an outside server, but Cornelius solicited donations after a busy hurricane season caused FLHurricane.com to suffer bandwidth problems and forced a hardware upgrade. "We got enough to get some pretty decent equipment and enough bandwidth." Most of the year, the site is "pretty quiet," but not surprisingly, usage peaks hard during times like these. "Katrina hasn't quite topped last year's four [Florida] hurricanes, but it's definitely the highest this year." Cornelius says the site was seeing levels around 2,000 simultaneous connections over the past two weeks, and about two million hits since the disaster-wreaking hurricane first came on the scene.

In addition to its server located in Newport News, Virginia, Cornelius maintains an image server locally and a network of donated server space from three data centers around the country. "They handle images and maps to spread out the bandwidth," he says.

Cornelius works long unpaid hours, in addition to time spent at his day job, to maintain the site and tend to users' needs. He says that last week during Katrina, he was up for four days straight. In addition to Cornelius and his brother, six volunteers help run the site, including three meteorologists who interpret raw weather data that comes in from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service. It is this interpretation that people who rely on FLHurricane.com find indispensable when bad weather threatens. "It's all about giving them information," Cornelius says. "We try to stick to the 'before' rather than the after. With Katrina we put up links about how to help."

But the burning question for the vast majority of people at the site? "Is it gonna come to my house? Is it gonna affect me?" Cornelius says the meteorologists give their opinions about forecasts and projected paths, but "we tell them to go to the original sources and we try not to get caught up in the hype. But with Katrina we couldn't believe what was happening -- how bad it was looking for New Orleans.

"Personally, I really hate hurricanes," Cornelius says. "Some people, you listen to them and they sound like they want them to happen. I'm the opposite. We try to find ways it won't affect you."

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