By Sue Bushell
If ever one wanted proof that the real work of IT is never, ever finished, the story of JORN is a classic case in point.
After almost 30 years in development, the Australian Defence Force has finally accepted the world-first $1.2 billion Jindalee Over-the-horizon Radar Network (JORN), now industriously bouncing signals off the ionosphere to search thousands of square kilometres of sea and air space to Australia’s north and west from installations at Laverton and Longreach, WA.
At an estimated cost of $1.8 billion, the sophisticated new radar network — capable of detecting just about anything we want to detect from at least 3000 kilometres away — had already proved its value long before final testing. It was used to track military aircraft landing and taking off from Dili Airport, in East Timor, on 20 September 1999, when Australia-led Interfet forces began securing the former Indonesian province from militia violence, and it has also played a crucial role in recent attempts to curb illegal immigration. But its development has been plagued with missteps and controversy, dogged by highly critical audit office reports, and massive cost blow-outs. Telstra in 1977 had to write-down $4000 million on its JORN losses. And no sooner had JORN’s developers accepted final delivery than they were facing critical questions of hardware obsolescence.
Completed by RLM systems, a joint venture by Tenix and Lockheed Martin, JORN is designed to secure Australia's remote northern approaches without constant maritime and air patrols. The network is linked to a test command centre in Melbourne and, via a duplicate link, to the RAAF's high frequency surveillance command headquarters at Edinburg base, near Adelaide. More than a million lines of software code were written to integrate the constantly changing electronic data in what is described by RLM Systems as the biggest software development project in the southern hemisphere. And a deluge of incoming data is processed by computer systems occupying 700 cabinets, according to RLM systems.
But while even more processing power will be needed for future versions, Digital Equipment has ceased to be, having been absorbed by Compaq Computer, and so the high-end Alpha 64-bit processors on which the system is based are no longer being developed. Meanwhile Compaq itself has been taken over by Hewlett-Packard, which has served notice it will cease making the Alpha chip.
The Australian Defence Force is now reportedly considering whether to switch JORN to newer, more sophisticated chips, or whether to turn to a much cheaper solution: giant “farms” of off-the-shelf PCs stitched together to handle the massive data crunching. A pointer to a possible direction comes from the Icelandic Energy Authority and Iceland's Institute for Meteorological Research, which in early 2001 bought a 12-node, 24-CPU Linux cluster computer from Linux Networx to help conduct 3-D simulations of Iceland's climate conditions and geothermal events.
The cluster, replacing a group of workstations including an Alpha, reportedly had a total cost of US$100,000, and is apparently successfully helping researchers understand past weather events in Iceland and to learn how the country's topography influences its weather.
The updated cluster was completed last summer, when 12 more nodes, each featuring dual Intel Pentium III 1.26-MHz processors, were added to the original 12 nodes, which featured 24 Intel Pentium III 866-MHz CPUs. One additional host node is used for administration of the cluster, and an assortment of SCSI and Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) hard disks is used for storage, with the ATA disks in a RAID-5 configuration.
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