Unisys takes on the big names in x86 servers with mainframe technologies

Using concepts designed on mainframes, Unisys plans to offer x86 servers designed for virtualization and cloud computing.

If you are looking to deploy secure, virtualized servers, you might want to add Unisys to the list of providers. Yes, Unisys, the company born out of the merger of mainframe vendors Sperry and Burroughs, has a few tricks up its sleeve that may give IBM, HP and Dell a run for their money.

Similar to IBM, Unisys is primarily a services firm, with hardware making up a small portion of its business. It has the ClearPath series of mainframes that competes with IBM's z series, that run one of two operating systems: MCP, which came from Burroughs, and OS 2200, which came from Sperry line. ClearPath comes in two brand names: Dorado, which runs OS 2200, and Libra which runs MCP.

In 2006, Unisys began an effort to migrate away from the custom CMOS chips that powered its ClearPath servers to Intel Xeon. Unisys protected its legacy software by mapping the Xeon instruction set to its own, so existing applications have no idea they are running on an Intel processor. "That gives us the ability to have object code compatibility," said Bill Maclean, vice president of the ClearPath portfolio management at Unisys.

In 2010, the company introduced its s-Par partitioning technology, which it says is similar to LPar from IBM and NPar from HP. sPar divides the mainframe into several partitions, one for the relevant operating system, while other partitions run 'specialty engines' designed for particular workloads. The secured virtual containers communicate through 56Gbit Infiniband channels.

It's these hardware-created and protected virtual machines that Unisys will offer in Forward! By Unisys, a Xeon-based line of servers designed specifically for virtualized and cloud environments. They can run Red Hat Enterprise Linux or Windows Server 2012 but the operating systems will be far better protected due to their hardware containers, said John Kunzier, director of marketing for Forward! By Unisys.

"Because of the way they dedicate resources, there is no hardware sharing. In a standard virtualized world, when I breach one environment, I breach them all, because they are all shared. You won't see the other pieces [of a Forward! system] if you breach one, because communications between the two is protected," he said.

He also added that ClearPath has suffered exactly one breach since 2002 and no data was lost in that incident.

The General Services Administration of the federal government is a customer using ClearPath to manage a fleet of 210,000 vehicles, including selling off surplus sold through their eBay-like auction service. Kunzier said that site is the target of up to 10,000 hack attempts on a daily basis but no one has broken the security yet.

As part of the Forward! program, Unisys will offer migration services from RISC-based systems from Sun/Oracle or IBM onto its hardware. Unisys will help with app porting and modernizing as well as architectural, operational, integration and automation services.

Maclean said Unisys does intend to be a bigger player in the server business but that it's not going after HP, Dell and IBM whole-hog. "Are we making a bigger push than historically? Yes. Not just to become a bigger server supplier but to pursue a focused server environment, the mission-critical server. We're not out there to compete with commodity platforms. That's not the structure, architecture or intent of Forward!," he said.

Unisys will formally introduce Forward! at the Gartner Symposium on October 7 for a fourth quarter release. A new x86-powered ClearPath is being introduced at its Universe user conference taking place this week in Chicago and will be available this month.

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