Payment clearing house Voca is preparing its IT systems to handle up to a 100 million transactions a day from 2007.
Voca's existing Fujitsu mainframe handled a peak load of 75 million transactions in one day during September, but from next month the system will have to cope with a spike in processing caused by the transfer of winter fuel payments direct to pensioners' bank accounts.
Although Voca is confident its mainframes can cope with initial demand, the clearing house is pushing ahead with a £100m programme to replace its mainframe with a Unix-powered payment system, which uses Sun F15000 servers.
The system has been developed in Java using the BEA Weblogic 8.0 application server running on an Oracle 9i database. It will run on two Sun E15000 servers configured as a cluster.
Chris Dunne, commercial business manager at Voca, said although the mainframe will be used initially to handle winter fuel payments, the company recognised the longer-term need to upgrade its systems.
"We knew we had to make a real change. We needed a scalable model to handle new services," he said.
Dunne said convincing his team of 400 employees, who were accustomed to working with the mainframe/Cobol environment, to adopt Unix/Java skills had been crucial. "Communications were key. We had to be upfront with staff," he said.
However, most of Dunne's team were enthusiastic about the move, since it represented career development for them. "Previously they would have had to leave the company in order to do Java development," he said.
Dunne will start passing reference data to the new system this month and begin parallel running with the mainframe by the end of the year.
Once the tests, which are scheduled to last several months, have been completed, Voca will switch to the Sun F15000 system.
"We are taking a big-bang approach to implementation, but nobody should notice the difference," said Dunne.
Business continuity at heart of new payments system
Business continuity is a significant factor in the design of Voca's new system.
The entire payment system, which is hosted in Essex, is replicated at a datacentre in Bedfordshire. Both sites are connected to a third management site in Hertfordshire using a DWDM (Dense Wave Division Multiplexing) network.
This type of optical network uses the individual components of light (red, green, blue, magenta etc) to transmit data down the fibre, giving significantly more bandwidth than traditional approaches, where the light comes from a single source.
Transactions processed by the main payment system are not acknowledged until the payment has been processed at the back-up site, said Dunne. This configuration of the back-up recovery system allows payment processing to be switched over without losing transactions. The procedure is tested regularly.
Dunne said, "We flip processing between the main and contingency site twice a year and customers do not see any difference." He said his staff also move between the two to ensure they can work at either site.