House Calls

How to bring your company back online while being chased by a tornado

May 13, 2009. I had never seen a wedge-shaped tornado before. And neither had my chase partner and company president, Tyler Allison. I had GRLevel3, looked at the surface, upper air data and model guidance beforehand, and I was convinced: the Kirksville, MO was the place to be that afternoon.

For those who have never been to north-central or northeastern Missouri, and have ever done weather spotting or storm chasing there, let’s get one thing straight: that area is in a radar hole. In fact, Kirksville is 110 miles away from the closest radar, which is St. Louis…and a terminal doppler weather radar that serves Kansas City. If you are looking for rotation in storms there, you’re looking 12,000′ up *at best*…in many cases, higher than that.

On that day, thunderstorms were developing, and one west of Kirksville looked particularly intense…so we went for it. I cautiously navigated our team south of Kirksville, out of harm’s way, as a tornado coming into what is the equivalent of a substantial suburb of a major city is NOT the place to be!

The supercell quickly became tornadic, and west of Kirksville, 5 miles away to its south, we could see a tornado becoming a wedge as it headed towards the city. It was not a good situation; the EF-2 tornado killed at least one person. Once the tornado moved east of the city and got northeast of our location, we headed back to our car.  The road network forced us to drive northeast for a time. This eventually placed us in or very near the path of the tornado! But, with yours truly navigating, I kept us out ahead of it, rain-wrapped most of the time from that point on. But as the storm, tornado and Tyler and I were approaching the Mississippi River, suddenly, something went wrong.

AllisonHouse went down. Specifically, no new data was coming in. And our social media and customer service emails were starting to come in, as people were beginning to wonder what was happening.

At the time, AllisonHouse was just me and Tyler. Logging into our system on what amounted to a 1x to maybe a low-end 3G cellular Internet connection, I quickly saw what happened: Level 2 radar data had pushed our disk usage to 100%. You can’t write data files to a full disk drive!

After a few minutes of figuring that out, another tornado drops down behind us, moving quickly east…and then we come into Quincy, IL.

I will never forget Tyler zig-zagging through the streets of downtown Quincy, sirens blaring, and the tornado bearing down (thankfully, it just missed the city…barely). As we were zig-zagging through the streets and I felt like I was in a roller coaster, I issued a command to our server to remove older, unnecessary level 2 data files from the system so that there would be room on the disk to write new ones (and level 3 and all other data as well). Super-reolution Level 2 radar had become a thing, but it was a bad thing for us that afternoon!

Within 30 minutes, navigating, watching funnel clouds and brief tornadoes from the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, the disk usage dropped to 90%, and we were “back on the air”. As we were watching the storm and seeing glimpses of the now rope-shaped funnel, I pounded out social media and email messages apologizing for the one hour long outage. After that, Tyler and I had learned our lessons about disk space!

Fast forward 7+ years. Rapid growth. New hires. A commitment to reliable, redundant,  high-quality weather data that you can afford. And here’s what we’ve learned in 7 years on those fronts: Ample disk space, memory, and fast, reliable servers and network connections are an absolute must! This past year, we rebuilt our architecture completely from scratch on our new Internet service provider. Nearly everything is redundant on our provider’s end, and get this: our system is set up in such a way that if you, our customers, are pounding our servers hard on busy days, that issue is taken care of *automatically*. That is why, since we did our rebuild, you’ve pretty much never had slow data feeds from us, except when their is a problem on your Internet provider’s end, or with your computer.

We cannot achieve 100% uptime for you on an annual basis. We must do maintenance late at night every once in a while and reboot our servers, and your Internet provider has to do the same. And of course, you need to replace your computer or phone from time to time. And every great once in a while, something breaks on your end, or on the National Weather Service end, our on ours. So, neither of us can be perfect. Having said that, over this past year, we are over 99.99% in our uptime, including maintenance! Our hard work and dedication to you is paying off. Reliability and trust must be earned, and we are doing our best to earn that right for you. So, when you are with AllisonHouse, you can be assured that we’re doing everything we can to give you the data when you need it…even if it means working with a tornado in our rear view mirror!

Reminiscing on 9 years with AllisonHouse, or: have you ever been hired in a bar?

Hello everyone,

I was notified recently that I have now spent over 9 years with AllisonHouse. Tyler Allison, the founder and president, was the solo person for a few years after he launched the company. But, he didn’t know where to get a lot of the weather data that had blossomed on the Internet, or by whom to get it from. Out of the blue, knowing my presence with UNIDATA, he asked me if he could have a basic data feed that I was getting. Since my NWS feeds were public on a first-served basis, I said “sure”. But then, he moved to the Chicago area about a decade ago with his day job. He met Paul Sirvatka, the director and founder of the College of DuPage undergraduate meteorology and storm chase program. And when he met Tyler, he said: “there’s someone you really ought to know!”. At the start of a storm chase season over 9 years ago, it was (and still is) traditional for the CoD meteorology storm chase class to go to a restaurant after the initial class meeting, to hang out and talk “weather geek” afterwards. Even though I wasn’t chasing with the CoD team that session, I was nevertheless invited along, and to briefly meet with a guy I had only vaguely known.

So, Paul introduced Tyler to me. After the usual greetings and salutations, we talked about various things…including weather. And weather data. And how to get that data, reliably and as inexpensively as possible, into the hands of storm chasers, weather spotters and weather “geeks” or “fanatics”.

After about 15 minutes, we excused ourselves from the main group and went to a relatively empty area of the bar to continue our conversation without having to shout (or be overheard). For the next nearly 4 hours, we talked about it all. Near the close of our conversation, Paul walks over and asks “Are you still talking?!?!?”. We laughed. Paul was the last one of the group to head out, and after saying goodbye to him, we realized it was getting late.

And that’s when Tyler dropped the bomb.

“So, I had no intention of doing this tonight, but I’d like to hire you…”

Yeah…my jaw pretty much hit the floor. I accepted the offer, and became Tyler’s second company employee. (And if you do talk to someone with influence in a restaurant or bar, or wherever…sometimes, you just might wind up working for them. Carpe diem!)

It’s been quite the rollercoaster since. But we’ve grown substantially thanks to our customers (again, thank YOU!), and now we have a full-time programmer (Ryan), customer service (Justin), and to say that they kick backside is an understatement. And then there’s Joe, who is quality and understanding through and through in helping you determine what you need and how we can serve you. Although a salesman, he won’t sell you anything you don’t need or want. The backend support by others keeps us going and moving forward!

Nearly a decade later, I’m rather astonished to see where we have come. One server, in the basement corner of Tyler’s house, ran our website, data feeds…everything, with about 20 customers. Today, we have multiple servers across the country with huge capacity and high redundancy. We no longer feed from me….our multiple satellite dishes plus a fiber backup ensure the data stays flowing reliably, and those are supported 24/7/365.

What’s next? Who knows…the walls keep falling down. When I started with AllisonHouse, lightning data was $10,000 per month. Now, if you want real-time, summarized lightning strikes over a 2 kilometer grid, it’s about the cost of a package of gum, or less. And if you want to know where every strike hit to within 100 feet in real-time, it’s now as low as $50/month!

One thing we do know that is coming is GOES-R. Can you imagine visible satellite imagery 4 times higher resolution than you have now, enabling you to see nearly every cloud? Water vapor imagery that used to be 16 KM when I started AllisonHouse, with GOES-R it goes up to 2 KM. Infrared imagery goes up to 2 KM resolution per pixel as well. And, we are in the process of upgrading our satellite ingest server to handle it all. It is mostly done; the final touches for padding will be added in the coming months before launch, but even now, our servers are ready! And if you want to know how all of this can help you be weather ready and aware, please contact us. We’re here to help!

Next time: fixing a data outage while being pursued by a killer tornado!

Is it a secret if something is done under your nose?

Sometimes, when we look at surface maps as meteorologists and weather enthusiasts, we miss things about weather reports. Maybe we miss that a station goes dark unless we are intimately familiar with it. Today, I learned of something that was happening right under my nose…and it took a colleague of mine to point it out to me.

Thanks to Boris Konon, I learned that all (and this is critical) *federally owned* AWOS (Automated Weather Observing Systems) sites, which are typically found at smaller airports, are being converted to, essentially, ASOS sites. They’ll still be called AWOS sites, but this “tech refresh” started a year ago, and will end in the latter portions of 2017, and these sites will have the same weather information in the observations as an ASOS site. Here is a list of the ones done so far: is your AWOS on the list? Note: AWOS sites owned by individual states will NOT have this done to them, unless a local state does it on their own accord. Here is a list of them done so far:
K7N0  New Orleans/Downtown LA
KAIZ  Kaiser/Lake Ozark MO
KAUO  Auburn AL
KBHB  Bar Harbor ME
KBID  Block Island RI
KBKX  Brookings SD
KBLM  Belmar/Farmingdale NJ
KCIU  Sault Ste Marie MI
KCWI  Clinton IA
KDVL  Devils Lake ND
KEKY  Bessemer AL
KEUL  Caldwell ID
KEWK  Newton KS
KFAM  Farmington MO
KGAD  Gadsden AL
KGDV  Glendive MT
KGPZ  Grand Rapids MN
KILE  Killeen TX
KISM  Orlando/Kissimmee FL
KLCI  Laconia NH
KLEW  Auburn/Lewiston ME
KLPC  Lompoc CA
KMBL  Manistee MI
KMJX  Toms River NJ
KMML  Marshall MN
KMNM  Menominee MI
KMRF  Marfa TX
KOAJ  Jacksonville NC
KOTG  Worthington MN
KOWB  Owensboro KY
KPQI  Presque Isle ME
KPTN  Patterson LA
KPTV  Porterville CA
KPVC  Provincetown MA
KPWG  Waco/Executive TX
KRKD  Rockland ME
KRUT  Rutland VT
KSDY  Sidney MT
KSFM  Sanford ME
KSOP  Pinehurst/Southern Pines NC
KSQI  Sterling/Rockfalls IL
KSUE  Sturgeon Bay WI
KTPL  Temple TX
KTVF  Theif River Falls MN
KUDG  Darlington SC
KVIS  Visalia CA
KWVL  Waterville ME
PABV  Birchwood AK
PADL  Dillingham AK
PAEM  Emmonak AK
PAGS  Gustavus AK
PAHP  Hooper Bay AK
PAHY  Hydaburg AK
PAII  Egegik AK
PAJC  Chignik AK
PAMY  Mekoryuk AK
PAPH  Port Heiden AK
PATG  Togiak Village AK

I don’t have a list of those that are coming, but keep an eye on yours if you know it’s federally owned! They will immediately report things like thunderstorms, peak winds, sea level pressure, etc. All will be done by September 30, 2017.