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Unisys, the Mainframe and the Undead

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Drew Robb

Like those persistent undead creatures in the zombie flicks, the mainframe stubbornly refuses to take its own death seriously. It must be 15 years now since the good doctors first pronounced unequivocally that there was no more life left in the old corpse.

Hard-Core Hardware: Unisys’ latest release demonstrates the mainframe is very much alive, even if it’s not the mainframe of yesteryear.

Yet IBM reports flourishing sales in its System z line, and this week Unisys saw fit to devote a press release to its brand new mainframe product line. To summarize the hardware aspects:

ClearPath Dorado 700 Series is based on the Unisys-designed CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) processor technology, and is the latest iteration of the company’s top-of-the-line mainframe. It provides better input/output (I/O) and higher processor performance than its predecessor. This system supports up to 32 processors, which can be partitioned into up to eight independent hard partitions, each supporting its own operating environment.

ClearPath Dorado 4000 Series and Libra 4000 Series run on the Unisys OS 2200 and MCP operating environments respectively and are based on the quad-core Intel Xeon 7350 x64 processors.

There is a lot more to the release and you can read about it here:

Obviously, this shows there is plenty of life in the Unisys mainframe user base, and it is still financially worthwhile for the company to invest plenty of R&D bucks to keep its platform updated. The prices of the models tell part of the tale: The Dorado 700 Series starts at $4.5 million, the Dorado 4000 Series models are priced from $498,000, and the Libra 4000 Series configurations are priced from $750,000.

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But it also signifies user base loyalty and that unkillable quality of so many mainframe-based systems.

“Unisys has a decent number of mainframe customers, and it would be very expensive and time consuming for them to move to an IBM mainframe, Unix, Windows or Linux,” said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group. “To keep these customers, Unisys has to maintain their platform with new hardware and software enhancements. That’s what they’re doing with this announcement, which provides solid improvements on their predecessors.”

He doesn’t feel there is anything here that would compel a new customer to add Unisys to its infrastructure. But that really isn’t the point. What he does see is the obvious transition away from proprietary processors toward Intel.

“Developing their own custom processor is expensive, it is getting exponentially more difficult to make it to the next die shrink, and the risks of a bad design are much higher,” said Olds. “Intel processors will likely far outstrip in terms of performance and price/performance anything Unisys can economically design or build.”

Unisys isn’t making a big secret of it either. Its press release uses the dreaded “industry standard processor” name, which makes it clear how it views the issue. It also mentions previously stated plans to move to a common platform. And it is going to great pains to demonstrate that 4000 Series customers will provide full compatibility of applications written on earlier-generation ClearPath systems, whether based on CMOS or Intel processors.

So reading between the lines of Intel’s press release and based on the Olds interview, this could well be the last or certainly one of the latter upgrades to the Unisys CMOS processor before the ClearPath Dorado 7000 Series finally succumbs once and for all to x86.

In the end there can be only one?

P.S. Another scenario presents itself: Could the move of mainframe manufacturers onto x86 or even POWER processors be the insidious end of the mainframe? Could the term cease to have any meaning and mainframes are absorbed into the general hardware landscape as merely the high-end of the x86 and POWER landscape? Remember, the zombies usually lose in the end.

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