Something New

A technology update from the VP Technical Development.

Posted by The BoG - October 1, 2018


My name is Zach Biesse-Fitton and I head up Technical Development on VATSIM. We’re starting this blog so we can share news and insights into what we’re working on. We plan to post regularly, and as you might expect we’re going to focus initially on the upcoming release of the new VATSIM Voice System (VVS).

So where are we at, you ask?

Voice System Update

One of our biggest projects has been the highly sought after updated voice system (this is not just a ‘new codec’ as many have mis-labeled, including us!). The new voice system implements line-of-sight VHF on any VHF aviation frequency that is selected within the simulator, anywhere in the world. We will no longer be using the standard voice room implementation, which is quite limiting. We have implemented VHF simulation with distance based fading out. We are now running a single voice server setup, running a 'slurper' to pull data from VATSIM's FSD servers. And yes, we are now running a new codec (the Opus codec, for those techy people out there.) Our next steps are testing on the live network to refine the technology, and then working on implementation. We owe a debt of gratitude to Mark Barnes, Gary Oliver and everyone who has supported the effort so far for their continued work on this hugely important piece of work that will transform the VATSIM user experience. Further thanks to Eoin Motherway for his work on VHF simulation, audio configuration and clicking tones.

As you will see above, we ran the first test with one controller and five pilots on Wednesday 26th September, followed by another slightly larger test (with roughly 25 pilots) on the evening of Saturday 29th September. We distributed some new software to a small group of people to fly in or out of two airports where the controllers also had the new system installed. Whilst we go through the testing phase, voice is being fed through an external plugin which is far easier to update day-to-day as the team introduces new features and fixes bugs. We are working on full client implementation. The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive, and the voice team are slaving away at building the feedback into the next build.

Getting the implementation right is just as important as the technology itself. The new voice setup will be compatible with all the flight simulator platforms we currently support as well as all our ATC clients. However, the ‘new voice’ and ‘old voice’ do not go side by side very easily for a number of reasons, and for this reason it has been decided a ‘hard launch’ will be necessary. Essentially, once testing is completed and we are happy with the product, there will be an overnight change to VATSIM globally where the old voice system is retired and the new voice system comes online. This will require every VATSIM member to make an update to their software, which we will make as seamless as possible. As you can imagine, this requires some logistics and we’re working hard to prepare everyone for the change, so that as soon as the technology is finished and fully tested we are ready to go.

So what does this change mean? It means less muffled voice transmissions (but with the option for realistic VHF distortion going forward). It means a massive improvement in delay: one of the main frustrations of pilots and controllers everywhere.  It means the ability to implement a realistic ‘voice UNICOM’. It means the possibility of setting up company frequencies for virtual airlines and VSOA’s. It means hearing pilots (and ATC) only if they are in range, with less clarity the further you are from the transmitting station. It means ATC able to control multiple frequencies. It means having that satisfying ‘click’ tone at the end of transmissions (allowing you to acknowledge transmission with a double-click, just like the real-world), and a realistic blocking tone when someone is stepped on. All very cool stuff which will bring all our online simming experiences to the next level.

Onto the big question: timelines. Essentially, the timeline depends on what implementation strategy we go with and how long it takes us to fix the remaining bugs/fixes (we have about 17 or so). There are 2 options at the moment. The first option could see us using the new software once beta testing is complete. In order for this to work, pilots and controllers would need to run the external ‘AudioforVATSIM’ client in addition to their current ATC or Pilot Client. Simply select an input device, output device and a PTT button and off they go. It’s a little clunky, but we want to use the new software just as quickly as you all do too. The second option sees us working with our developers (that work has already started) to fully integrate the new architecture into the pilot and ATC clients. This will probably take longer, but will mean a better user experience (only running 1 program, no confusion). Regardless, eventually all modern clients will be native with the new software, but in the interests of getting this crucial update released sooner rather than later, we do have the option for the quicker initial launch with Option 1. We have not yet made a final decision on the best implementation but will communicate this once we have concluded discussions with our developers.

Other Technology

We've also had a huge team of people working on FSD (Flight Sim Daemon). If you didn’t know, FSD is the software that keeps VATSIM ticking. One of the biggest tasks (aside from cleaning up 18 years of 'bandaid fixes') is to increase the number of position updates to ensure a smoother experience for all users. Our target is currently to have updates every 0.5 seconds (just like ADS-B in the real world). Clients will continue to 'smooth' out the remaining 'space' in between updates - we believe this will create a great balance between performance and realism. A huge thanks to Chris Collins, David Zhong and Daren Zhu for their continued hard work on this.

The network infrastructure is also being overhauled from a hardware point-of-view. Old, slow and out-of-date servers are being replaced by new Amazon AWS servers, with an updated security and modern monitoring system, alerting VATSIM sysadmins before the problems occur. These updates come with the intention of creating a global, load balancing network cluster. The goal is to move VATSIM to a high availability configuration, with failover options across all regions. This will include optimized routing based upon geographic location and individual server load. What will this mean for you? Less downtime, less trying to figure out which server suits you best, and more time doing the things you love.

The web development team has been working on a replacement to CERT, called 'manage'. With GDPR, PIPEDA and many other data protection regulations coming into play across the globe, data protection and security is a hot topic at the moment. With this, we have begun overhauling our web interface which is used to manage VATSIM user data such as suspensions, region transfers, registrations and much, much more. The new interface will not only further our granular control over data access and permissions, but will add more functionality, including easier to use APIs, real-time updates of data based on current network servers, and other tools that will help VATSIM’s membership and supervisory teams make your experience more enjoyable. All of this is being built using the latest web development conventions with security as the top priority. Thanks to Aidan, Alex and Andrew for their hard work on this.

I can’t thank all of the development team enough for their work and commitment so far. Not everyone has been mentioned individually, but every single one of these people stuck their hands up to assist. To the team, you have all assisted in many different ways, be that technical or managerial, so thank you, from me, the Board of Governors and the VATSIM membership.

That's all for now! Thanks for reading, and watch this space.

~ Zach