One of the Zambia’s largest mining companies, Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), has embarked on a multi-million dollar drive to upgrade its information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure, enhancing communication between its four sites and significantly streamlining operations. The project is being undertaken in partnership with Intrinsic Technology, the pan-African network and systems integrator. And it sees KCM upgrading its data network, deploying a storage area network (SAN) and migrating to a new version of the ERP system that runs, controls and manages its business processes.

Koos Holl, the group IT manager at the mining house, explains that ICT was long believed by members of the mining community to be a burden on the bottom line. Today, nothing could be further from the truth, he says. "ICT has a positive impact across so many areas of our business. Office productivity and email/Web communication tools are crucial. ERP systems that manage our material supply, finances, maintenance, production and human resources are vital. And other mining-specific applications drive several areas of our business."

For KCM, the key is to have these horizontal and vertical market applications operating together and efficiently. To make this possible, the company uses a fibre optic network to link the Konkola mine at Chililabombwe, the Nampundwe mine outside Lusaka and a smelter at Kitwe to a central point at the Nchanga mine at Chingola."This switched network handled large volumes of data so it has to have high bandwidth and be well-managed. We’ve therefore extended the fibre optic cabling so almost 50 kilometres of it runs across the mines and the smelter. We’ve also deployed a number of new servers to host and drive our business applications," says Holl. For years the network has run Unix on Alpha processor systems. However Ed Callen, the joint MD at Intrinsic Technology, says KCM is in the process of changing this.

"KCM is laying the foundation for a migration to Windows NT servers," he says. "This means that all staff can work in the familiar Microsoft user environment. It also means the cost of the infrastructure, the software and the services necessary to keep it running in optimum condition are lower." From a data storage standpoint, KCM has deployed a central Windows-based SAN. This allows users at all sites to store and access data in the same way as if the devices were direct-attached. The difference, however, is that the devices are actually based at the central location at Nchanga. "This means it’s far easier - and more cost-effective - for us to manage the devices and the data stored on them ... much more so than if they were spread across all four sites," notes Holl.

The other important development is KCM’s planned migration from the existing Unix-based ERP system, Mims (Mining Information Management System), to Ellipse, a new version of Mims that runs on Windows. "The ERP system manages all aspects of KCM’s day-to-day business," says Callen. "We’re currently working with the company to ensure a smooth changeover. It’s really just a software change but we still have to ensure the cut-over takes place without impeding the flow of data."

Servicing this huge array of ICT systems is another of the challenges faced by Holl. The solution has been to strike a partnership with Intrinsic-backed Zambian company, Multi Vendor Services (MVS) - one of the first IT services companies to be established in the copper belt during the late 1990s. "Internal queries from our divisions are handled through our comprehensive service desk. Users log calls with the desk ... these are then prioritised and resolved by us and the MVS team accordingly," says Holl.

Approximately 20 of KCM’s staff have been transferred to complement the MVS team in a form of outsourcing agreement. There’s a direct economic impact here: instead of the revenues derived from services being transferred straight over the border into South Africa - or even overseas - they are kept in Zambia.