Jul 07 2008

Transit Modernization

Austin's Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority smooths operations with thin clients and desktop virtualization.

Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority smooths operations with thin clients and desktop virtualization.

MetroRail passenger service rolls out in Austin, Texas, this fall.

Commuting in Austin, Texas, had long been frustrating. The roads were among the most congested in the nation, and the public transit system had become more crowded. Computing, too, was difficult for the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority because of application access problems.

To tackle its network traffic jam, Capital Metro put new technology in the driver’s seat early this year, including application virtualization software that makes it easier for branch-office call center agents to access bus schedules in real time. The software addition comes a year after the transit agency stepped up its data center server consolidation and began replacing desktops with thin clients, programs that continue today. The agency is working to replicate systemwide the improvements made in its Special Transit Services call center.

“We’ve been working hard to make things run more efficiently,” says Jason Blevins, network administrator for the agency. Virtualizing servers and desktops and using thin-client devices helps. “Now, we can focus more on the software, instead of just on hardware repairs and maintenance.”

IT Overhaul

Austin’s public transportation system is undergoing a vast overhaul as part of a long-term plan called All Systems Go! The plan addresses the pressures of regional population growth in the Greater Austin area, which is expected to double in the next 25 years. Ongoing projects include construction of South Congress Transit Center, slated to open this summer; the purchase of new trains and buses; and the addition of the city’s first passenger rail line.

Jason Blevins of Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority clears congestion on his WAN by deploying thin clients.

But without an efficient IT system, the addition of shiny new trains will only go so far. That’s why the agency earmarked nearly one-third of its $34 million fiscal 2008 transit capital budget for IT-related projects. Two such projects were the rollout of new asset-management software for buses and trains, and the switch from desktop PCs to Wyse Technology thin-client devices, says Blevins. Forty of the agency’s 450 workstations are now thin clients, and more are planned.

Other state and city transit operations are modernizing their transit data centers through the use of desktop and server virtualization and thin clients. The Maryland Transit Administration, for example, has added application virtualization software to the scheduling system for its paratransit vehicles and added in-vehicle thin clients to let drivers access the latest pick-up requests. Similarly, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada will soon deploy application virtualization software and in-vehicle thin clients to deliver scheduling and vehicle-location applications.

Capital Metro deployed the thin client devices to the agency’s maintenance facility and paratransit dispatch group. The devices cost less than $300 each, a savings of about $1,000 per device compared with the desktop PCs they replaced. The switch smoothed out a few bumps, particularly in the maintenance garage where the PCs had been kept under lock and key to prevent theft and damage.

Thin clients are well suited for sooty bus garages, where maintenance workers use the asset-management system to process work orders, look up part numbers and report the status of vehicles under repair. “Dirty fans on PCs would clog up,” says Blevins. “Now, with the thin clients, there are no fans, no moving parts.” About 30 thin clients are deployed in Capital Metro’s bus repair bays, and another 10 or more at parts counters and other maintenance areas.

Another problem that used to plague the agency was that the transportation software kept crashing when it traversed the WAN. While that is not an issue for Capital Metro’s main bus fleet, whose dispatch servers operate from headquarters, it caused headaches for the paratransit dispatchers and call-center agents, who operate from a remote Special Transit Services office 10 miles from agency headquarters.

Blevins solved the problem by rolling out Citrix Systems XenApp, which centralizes applications and data, thus reducing bandwidth demand on the WAN. Each time users connect to the Citrix servers, only mouse movements, keystrokes and screen updates traverse the network. That reduces network bandwidth needs and, in turn, boosts productivity because workers are not waiting on sluggish applications, he says.

XenApp allows Capital Metro to send critical applications reliably over the leased lines that connect five agency buildings and comprise the bulk of its WAN. Call-center agents and dispatchers of paratransit vehicles for riders with disabilities now use XenApp to access transportation software.

The XenApp and Wyse thin-client deployment offers two other advantages, Blevins says. First, when any of the 23 IT staff members needs to update software, the staffer can do so from a central location. Previously, they had to physically change software on each system.

Second, XenApp allows Blevins to limit users to specific applications. So, for example, maintenance workers largely access just the asset-management software, and customer service representatives need only scheduling software. “Most employees are only using one or two applications,” says Blevins. “They don’t use a lot of resources. In fact, most PCs today can be a lot bigger than most people need.”

About 100 Capital Metro employees access centrally hosted software by using XenApp, including a few employees who work remotely from home, at Austin’s University of Texas and at vendor locations.

In other enhancements, the agency deployed VMware Virtual Desktop Infrastructure and Wyse thin clients to gain flexibility in deploying resources. For example, VMware VDI and thin clients let the agency quickly shift the call center from one building to an alternate fail-over site in case of emergency — such as the 2007 avian bird flu scare that shut down city streets for several hours.

The IT group deployed VMware VDI on two servers, creating 40 virtual workstations for the agency’s Special Transit Service offices. While XenApp is used for access to applications, it is VMware that provides the Windows XP OS to the Wyse devices. They also deployed VMware Infrastructure 3 on 10 servers, creating 90 virtual servers. The agency now has 12 physical servers comprising 10 IBM Blades and two HP DL380s hosting 90 virtual servers and 40 virtual workstations. Before February 2007, the agency had only five blade servers and about 60 standalone servers.

Using VMware, Blevins and his IT co-workers can host server and desktop environments inside virtual machines running in the data center. VMware not only helps Blevins quickly set up emergency workstations — downtime for physical hardware problems is minimized by being able to assign a failed server’s resources to another physical server during the repair process — but it makes it easier for him as the agency replaces aging desktop PCs with new thin clients. That’s because new systems can be provisioned in a few clicks of the network administrator’s mouse. “We built 30 in a day,” he says.

Next, Capital Metro will expand thin-client computing and virtualize more desktops and servers.

This spring, about 100 employees were using Citrix XenApp remotely, and 70 of the organization’s 450 workstations were using Wyse thin clients with virtualized desktops via VMware and/or XenApp. “The environment is still growing, and we are working hard to get more things moved over to thin clients with VMware or Citrix,” says Blevins.

Clearly, Capital Metro is on a roll with virtualization. And that should unclog traffic jams on the road and online.

Get on the Bus

In Austin, Texas, high gasoline prices are expected to boost bus ridership by 2 percent in 2008 from 2007, to approximately 33.6 million passenger trips, according to the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Transportation Technology

Automatic vehicle location transponders track movements in real time.

What does it take to move passengers from Point A to Point B? A fair bit of technology, if you want to do so efficiently.

That’s why the Austin, Texas, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other state transportation agencies are turning to intelligent transportation systems (ITS) that coordinate automobile, bus, rail and ferry movements in real time.

Capital Metro is rolling out buses equipped with automatic vehicle location transponders and computer-aided dispatch software that allow dispatchers to track their movements. Also in the works are new Capital MetroRapid buses that communicate electronically with traffic lights, signaling the lights to stay green longer as buses approach. By interacting with traffic lights, the new 60-foot articulated buses are expected to shorten travel times by as much as 20 percent, says Capital Metro.


Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority is one of many transit agencies busy modernizing its bus fleets.

Agency Vehicles Technology deployed
Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority 2,635 buses Integrated Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) system archives and automatically feeds run-time data to scheduling department. Components include a Transit Radio System that uses wireless WAN to provide real-time fleet management and text-based radio messages to operation manager; a related Computer Assisted Dispatch (CAD) software system; AVL system using Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) to provide the location of every bus; and an Automatic Passenger Counting (APC) used to quantitatively monitor Metro Bus service and to provide information used for planning future services.
Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD) Colorado 1,066 buses Use of AVL, combined with an upgrade in the radio communications system and mobile data terminals (MDTs), improved on-time performance and increased ridership. Also, in 2006, RTD embarked on a project to make major upgrades to its information technology capabilities, a four-phase implementation of an enterprise resource planning system. This system replaces RTD’s existing financial, human resources, and maintenance management systems, which were developed in house in the 1980s and early 1990s, with an off-the-shelf integrated system. Three phases are complete, and full implementation of this system will be completed in 2008, says RTD.
Capital Metropolitan Transportation Agency (Austin) 503 vehicles AVL and mobile data terminals (MDTs) installed between summer and fall of 2008. Other systems that are being deployed include other components of its intelligent transportation system; Centralized Train Control, a system that allows dispatchers to monitor and control the position of trains; a ticket-vending machine system; asset-management and related software; according to the agency’s fiscal 2008 budget.
Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), Georgia 665 buses AVL and CAD is in use for all of MARTA’s fixed-route buses, the transit agency uses data from AVL CAD and automatic passenger counter systems to assist in planning.