The new FAA system uses faster, more reliable, and more secure Stratus FTserver 6400s powered by quad-core Intel Xeon processors. The new servers support virtualization for more efficient additions and workload distribution.  (Source: Stratus)
New FAA flight plan system beefs up security and processing power

In September last year, DailyTech reported that the FAA was in the process of virtualizing its flight plan infrastructure.  A throwback from the Cold War days, officials were inspired to replace the dinosaur-of-a-system after several massive crashes that were attributed to the failing, aging hardware.  A successful upgrade of a similar internal business system at the FAA, utilizing servers and storage from Sun and Cisco, served as a template for the flight plan system upgrade.

Over the last half year the FAA has been carrying out the upgrade, and it is now nearing completion.  The new and improved National Airspace Data Interchange Network's (NADIN) will comprise a critical part of the NAS (National Air Space) traffic system, which processes over 1.5 million messages a day.

FAA IT administrator Jim McNeill reports that these upgrades are almost done, stating, "We've just about finished our transition from the legacy system over to the new system.  The main new system is for NADIN, built on Stratus servers with virtualization, and handles all the legacy [mainframe] functions as well as new FAA-owned IP systems."

The new network will separate government and non-government data, a federal requirement.  The system uses virtualization to better provision services on new heavy-duty Stratus FTserver 6400s hardware.  The servers feature Intel Xeon quad-core processors.  Designed by Lockheed Martin engineers, the system replaces two 21-year-old Phillips DS714 mainframes -- located in Atlanta, Ga., and Salt Lake City -- that first went live in 1989.

Mr. Mcneill describes the benefits of virtualization, stating, "Our biggest use of virtualization is that it allows us to install one physical server, then provision services across that server, in a much faster manner, without having to do any modernization, upgrades or hardware installations."

He continues, "We can run one virtual machine for generic TCP/IP users, we can have another VM for international connections, and then we're having discussions about other agency services that have external data requirements. This allows us to provision them in a quick time frame and keep them isolated from each other in terms of data flow."

Virtualization also is helping the system with its upgrade needs.  States Mr. Mcneill, "It's travel to a facility for a hardware installation, power modification, training -- it's very costly and time-consuming to have to do all that.  Now with this common server using virtualization, we can have a template for an operating system and provision a new service in days, requiring no facility upgrade or travel."

The system enjoys superior security thanks to a new NAS-approved security gateway.  Mr. Mcneill states, "The system has a limited numbers of Internet access ports to the NAS system. We will keep the system inside one of their approved security gateways."

The upgrades are viewed as critical to the nation's security.  Recent intrusions of FAA systems have shown that foreign parties can gain access to the system and recent crashes have shown just how vulnerable the system is to corrupted data or other problems.  A full scale attack of the elderly system could easily bring domestic air traffic in the U.S. grinding to a halt.  International intelligence analytical firm Stratfor states, "The lack of redundancy and dynamism demonstrated ... by the latest NADIN crash makes a cyberattack against critical U.S. infrastructure all the more feasible."

One key difference between the old and new system is that pilots will no longer file their own flight plans.  Under the new system general aviation pilots (such as pilots of very small private planes) will file plans via a service provider or a flight station.  Pilots with airlines and private air services will have their plans filed by service providers that they employ.

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