CN goes WILD about Linux

While the rest of the world is only now getting busy jumping on the Linux bandwagon, the signals and communications (S&C) department of the Canadian National Railway Company has been using Linux since its inception.

But even for a veteran Linux shop, the recent upswing in the OS’ popularity means that there are a host of new, never-been-tried-before products and solutions commercially available.

For Montreal-based S&C, that means that the department can purchase an application server, a database and development tools from Oracle Corp. for use in its Linux development environment, but what it also means, according to David Livingstone, S&C’s senior operations officer, is implementing another brand of Linux.

The Oracle products run on Red Hat Linux. S&C doesn’t.

“We have based our systems on Slackware,” said Livingstone, “and the reason that we have picked that is that it is a very easily configurable system, and we are looking at using the system mainly for producing other systems, and to support other systems.

“We are doing a lot of development work on it — it’s not a system that a user is going to sit down and run applications on – it’s a server type system that will bring in information from other systems. It is very easy to work with. That is why we started to use it.”

Still, Livingstone is not too concerned about the transition to Red Hat because it supports the core Linux kernel, and, because it still brings all of the Linux advantages to CN.

“Obviously the bottom line here is that it is easy to convince people to allow development to go ahead because the costs are very low. We don’t have large up-front costs with relation to software. You can quite easily prototype something to prove that it works.”

S&C’s responsibility is to govern the systems that control the movement and dispatching of CN’s trains. To that end, Livingstone explained, the department often finds itself developing and supporting systems that compile information, produce reports and monitor other systems.

One of its current projects is to create a wheel impact load detection system (WILD). WILD is a server based system that takes information from field sites, called wayside systems, across Canada. The wayside systems sit on the edge of the rail, and measure the impact of the train’s wheels. Based on that information, CN can tell which wheels are defective and need to be replaced.

The information will be passed from the wayside systems through the Linux-based server, and will eventually be stored in a Linux-based Oracle 8i database. (S&C is currently using 8.0.5 until 8i on Linux is available.) Reports based on the data will then be made available via the Web or the CN intranet (which also runs on Linux).

Making the reports easily accessible via the Internet was the key reason CN decided to work with Oracle products.

“With respect to Oracle – we went with it because we had an old database system on an old Unix platform – and it is now obsolete.,” Livingstone said.

“And my emphasis on the systems that we are putting up is on Web-based systems. Oracle is tightly coupled to the Web. So that’s the reason we are going with Oracle — they are tightly coupled to the Web and the tools they have can easily generate applications for the Web. Not to mention, it is the de facto standard within CN for middle server database systems, so it is an easy sell.”

As a project, WILD is still in its early stages, and Livingstone explained that S&C is still in the process of deciding exactly which tools to use – either Oracle Developer or WebDB — but the choice about the database interface language has already been made.

“When we do custom work about how we parse the information and generate reports, Perl is our preferred language for that. It works. It is simple to program, simple to prototype and very fast to put up. And it is interpretative. Not to mention that the speed is quite good on it – relative to doing it in C, which is another alternative.

“C is a very monolithic system, it is very rigid about what you do and very difficult to change once you do it. Perl is sort of the opposite. It is very simple to change. It is interpretative, and is easy to try things out, and with the speed of the processors these days with respect for the performance, I don’t think you’ll see much difference.”

In addition, S&C will be utilizing the new infrastructure to make inventory and equipment databases available to its remote workers. That means building new interfaces for the database, and that will be done using the more basic capabilities of the Oracle development tools, again for simplicity’s sake.

Livingstone said his department will use Oracle’s “4GL PL SQL code to tie the logic together on it. Now [Oracle] also has Java-based development tools, but we are using PL SQL because it is simpler for the user to program.”

When asked what he thought about the sudden attention to Linux, Livingstone said he could see why people are starting to notice the OS.

“What seems to be driving this is the large software companies like Oracle which are supporting it, so it seems to be coming out to be a media attention grabber.”

As for Oracle, having CN as an early customer is seen as advantageous.

“I’m personally looking forward to seeing them use our technology for this. In David’s mind this is one of the key projects that CN will fire up in the coming months,” said Serge De La Sablonniere, senior sales consultant with Oracle Corp. Canada Inc. in Montreal.

“We are also very happy to have that customer in Montreal, because there is a lot of interest in the market,” added Oracle’s Lucie Girard, director of sales consulting. “Having customers like CN starting to use it as a corporate solution is very major, we can work with CN to bring benefit to other companies.”