Medscheme, the largest medical aid administrator in southern Africa, recently made history, saved money and substantially improved its performance by upgrading its IT infrastructure.

The project saw Medscheme upgrading its hardware, operating systems, storage arrays and database all at once, without disrupting its business processes or taking its operational systems offline.

Founded in 1971, Medscheme is a black-empowered, South African-owned business operating in South Africa, Mauritius, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

As a long-time partner, Unisys Africa has been providing IT consulting and implementation services to Medscheme, which has built its mission-critical business processes on ES7000 multi-processor servers. In 2004, the administrator decided to upgrade its infrastructure to replace its five-year-old ES7000 servers with newer, more powerful (and lower cost) models. The upgrade would also ensure it would be able to cope with the increased pressures facing the medical insurance market in South Africa, and its own growth.

"The decision to continue with Unisys as our IT partner was never in doubt," says Kevin Wright, CIO of Medscheme. "We have enjoyed premium service and support from Unisys over the years and were not about to risk a trusted relationship that worked well for all parties concerned. What we needed to determine was what technologies we would use."

Medscheme's existing ES7000s ran either the SCO UnixWare operating system with an Oracle database, or Windows Server with Microsoft's SQL Server database. With Oracle ending support for the SCO platform, Medscheme had to find a new operating system platform for its Oracle systems - moving its operational data from Oracle was not an option Wright was prepared to consider.

"With the help of Unisys, we decided to go the Novell SuSE Linux route, a platform supported by Oracle and Unisys. Moreover, by adopting an open source system such as Linux, we could be sure we would be able to run our systems on any Intel-based hardware as we expand our operations into Africa. And we saved substantially on our software licensing costs."

So how was the environment architected? Steven Grundlingh, Medscheme account manager at Unisys Africa, reports: "The server infrastructure is based on two 16 CPU ES7000 520s. These servers are partitioned to run production, development and disaster recovery and are located in two physically separate locations. The storage is provided by EMC DMX, Symmetrix and CLARiiON systems, supported by StorageTek L700 and L180 tape libraries for backup. The total data under management is 20 Terabytes."

Medscheme is also in the process of moving its primary Microsoft systems to the ES7000 environment to ensure the same level of support, performance and business continuity as is enjoyed by the Linux systems. All SQL databases already run on ES7000 technology and systems such as MediServe, a system for authorising chronic medication, and Microsoft Exchange are currently being migrated.

Not only does Medscheme support the IT requirements of its own employees, but it also runs realtime transactions to authorise and pay providers. Around 45% of its transactions are now run in realtime. This means that when a pharmacy is authorised to provide medication, for example, the transaction is completed in its entirety, with the transfer of funds taking place at a time as determined by rules in the systems.

Grundlingh reports that the migration was done over the Easter long weekend. "The disaster recovery systems were used to provide continuous service to the business while, on the primary production systems, the Oracle 9i database was installed and the data migrated and converted to the Linux file format. By the time normal work resumed after the weekend, everything was running on the new systems without hitches. All users experienced was better performance."

Specifically, Grundlingh notes that jobs that previously required 24 hours to complete are now finished in less than three; realtime claims that used to take five seconds per transaction now take 2,5 seconds. Additionally, using EMC's TimeFinder data replication software to copy the company's data to a section of the storage array for testing and development purposes now only requires three hours whereas it used to take 15.

"There's no single product or service that delivered these brilliant results," Grundlingh says. "It is the combination and configuration of the combined solution that has made the impact on Medscheme's business processes. Further improvements can be expected as the company makes further upgrades to its older hardware and installs Oracle Database 10g as its centralised database in 2006."

"Our database is critical to the success of the company," says Wright. "To meet the legal requirements of our industry and to ensure we deal with all claims - realtime or not - as fast as possible, we store everything on the central Oracle database. All transactions and their related communications are stored, whether scanned documents, SMS or e-mail messages. Our call centre agents can track any correspondence linked to any record in a second with the click of a button. Via an Avaya switch, voice calls will also be stored and accessible in the same manner."

Through Unisys's understanding of Medscheme's business requirements, it was able to ensure that Linux was and is able to meet all of Medscheme's enterprise computing requirements. Grundlingh concludes: "On its own, few companies will be able to ensure Linux, at its current maturity level, delivers on the real needs of the enterprise, integrates successfully and runs reliably. With the assistance of an experienced partner, however, Linux can, right now, meet and exceed all enterprise needs reliably and at a lower cost than any other Unix platform on the market."