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Shipping Out A Legacy System

Virginia's ports shift applications to a Unix platform from HP to handle future growth

Virginia International Terminals Inc. knows that to stay competitive in shipping, change is as constant as the tides. That's why the marine-port and trucking-terminal operator has for the past year been preparing to move critical transaction-processing systems from a server platform on the verge of obsolescence to one better suited to manage the swelling tide of data flowing through the company daily.

A year ago, Virginia International learned that Hewlett-Packard was preparing to close the book on its once-popular e3000 server line and was encouraging customers to migrate to HP 9000 servers running either HP-UX Unix or Linux. This was a daunting task for Virginia International, which has been running its mission-critical online transaction-processing system on e3000 servers for nearly two decades. HP's announcement that it will stop selling the e3000 in November and stop supporting the product after 2006 "sent a shock wave through our organization," Clark Farabaugh, Virginia International's assistant IT director, said a year ago when informed of the vendor's decision.

Container crane

Virginia International is upgrading its physical and IT infrastructures so it can stay competitive and grow. This container crane is one of eight it recently purchased.
Today, Farabaugh says Virginia International's 45 business-technology workers have the project well in hand. In November, the company will move its billing and accounts-receivable transaction-processing application to a new HP 9000, model rp8400, running HP-UX and an Oracle9i database. In subsequent months, Virginia International will migrate its crucial enterprise applications for tracking container and loose-cargo transactions and logistics. The work is being done gradually because the company can't afford any downtime among these big, complex apps, Farabaugh says. "There's not going to be a big-bang switch to Unix," he says. "One hundred percent uptime is a [Virginia International] policy, because we're operating these terminals around the clock."

Farabaugh acknowledges that the hardest parts of the migration are yet to come. Since the e3000 operated only a small suite of very mature apps, Virginia International didn't have to worry about those apps being compatible with one another. "Oracle is the big unknown," he says. The shipper has for years used Speedware Corp.'s 4GL to write applications for the e3000 platform. "I'm not sure if we'll encounter performance issues with Speedware's run-time environment if it's running on the same rp8400 partition as Oracle9i."

Although Virginia International, which manages all four state-owned ports and handles 1.2 million containers a year, had few complaints about its legacy systems, it knows the Unix-Oracle combo will help it continue to grow. It has been working closely with the Homeland Security Department to provide the federal government with electronic access to shipping records when requested. The company also is buying and installing eight large container cranes, a $45 million project to ensure that Virginia's ports can handle shipping traffic for the next 25 years.

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