December 21, 2009, 12:10 PM — At the heart of Union Pacific Corp.'s railroad operations is an IBM mainframe-based transportation control system that's been chugging along like a hardworking locomotive for nearly 40 years. According to industry experts, it was a pioneering system when first introduced, and it made the Omaha-based transportation giant one of the first companies in the world to make extensive use of online transaction processing technologies.
But while Union Pacific has been able to build on the system's 11 million lines of macro assembler code and make functional modifications to it over the years, the technology has grown obsolete, according to company executives. That has made it tougher for developers to add features in response to customers' business requirements in what has become an increasingly "alert-driven, workflow-based world," says Martin Malley, assistant vice president of information systems at Union Pacific Railroad.
For example, because of slowing sales in the automotive industry, Union Pacific executives wanted the ability to commingle vehicles from different manufacturers on a single railcar, says Malley. The old system wouldn't have been able to handle that change, he says. But thanks to a new distributed network that has been in development since 2006, the company has been able to introduce some of that functionality and much more.
The emerging network, dubbed NetControl, is based on a service-oriented architecture platform that relies heavily on open-source technologies such as the Apache Web server, Hibernate query software and SpringSource's Java application management tools. It is being written in J2EE and runs on Linux. Components of the new transportation control system are being deployed in stages to help Union Pacific better manage more than 90,000 railcars and 32,000 miles of track. The SOA project will cost $150 million to $200 million, and the system is expected to become fully operational by the end of 2013, at which time the company plans to phase out the IBM mainframe.
A System for the Future
The project was conceived in part because Union Pacific was having difficulty recruiting IT workers with macro assembler skills to maintain and enhance the older system, says Senior Vice President and CIO Lynden Tennison. Many IT workers who are familiar with the mainframe-based system are nearing retirement age, and "most colleges and universities don't even teach assembler," he says.
Union Pacific also wanted to develop a system that would improve customers' interactions with the company and help drive internal productivity gains, says Tennison.