A seven-fold increase in performance, massive scalability and expertly-managed business processes are just some of the benefits claimed by Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT) since it cut across to HP systems powered by the Intel Itanium 2 architecture last month. The project was initiated by Richards Bay Coal Terminal, the largest single coal terminal in the world, late last year. It was coordinated and executed by pan-African systems integrator, Intrinsic Technology.

Initial plans were drawn up around upgrading the IT systems that controlled and managed RBCT’s business - a process which covers the 3000 rail wagons that deliver coal each day, the 66 million tons of coal handled each year and the 500-plus employees that oversee it all. "Our core operations are controlled by two primary servers and our users access the systems resident on these machines," explains Dave Green, the business leader at RBCT. "One runs an Oracle database to provide data for the manufacturing execution and management information systems.

The other ‘control’ server runs operational and process software. The two machines are interconnected and manage almost every activity at our plant." The upgrade saw the existing database servers replaced with systems powered by the Itanium 2 processor. The latest version of the Oracle 9i, database release 2, was also installed on these machines. Given the mission-critical nature of the systems it was also necessary to implement a high availability strategy. As a result the server set up is duplicated, explains C. J. van Rensburg, the Oracle DBA of database specialist Rextin - one of the implementation partners - adding that plans for further redundancy are in the pipeline.

"RBCT currently has one database server and one control server that are live - these run the plant. In the event of something failing on one of these machines, we have an exact replica of both servers ready to go at a moment’s notice," he says. From a business benefit standpoint RBCT has seen the average response time of the Oracle database improve by more than 700% - that is, the Itanium 2 system executes queries on the Oracle database seven times faster than on the previous machine.

The system allows for easy expansion to cater for the growth that RBCT is planning this year. It also provides a platform for technological growth, given that upgrading to the next iteration of the Itanium processor, codenamed Madison, is a simple case of swapping out processors. Madison is slated to be available in July this year. "The project is not only significant because of its positive impact on RBCT’s business though," says Marc Dijkstra, the Unix expert from Intrinsic who also worked on the project.

"It’s also the first time that the latest release of Oracle 9i has been rolled out on the Itanium 2 architecture anywhere in Africa." This in itself is an important fact for HP, Intel and software companies like Oracle. "Itanium has always been positioned as the future of 64-bit business and technical computing. However, the first iteration of the processor was not widely adopted by the industry, fueling speculation that it wasn’t a mature enough technology," says Kevin Barnard, the Unix and Itanium product manager at HP South Africa.