Meet the Other Linux Mainframe: Unisys' ES7000

Freshly certified for Linux, Unisys’ ES7000 supports mainframe-like features such as dynamic partitioning

Since its release almost four years ago, Unisys Corp.’s ES7000 server has been almost exclusively a Windows-only play. That changed last week when Unisys announced support for two popular distributions of Linux, Novell’s SuSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) 9 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Server.

What’s more, officials say, a new capability of the Linux 2.6 kernel lets Unisys do the previously unthinkable: offer mainframe-like features such as dynamic partitioning in an Intel-based system. The ES7000—which scales from four to 32 Intel Xeon or Itanium 2 processors—has long supported dynamic partitioning in hardware, officials say, but Unisys has been waiting for Microsoft and the open source community to catch up.

“This is an industry first to have dynamic partitioning on an Intel server,” says Derek Rodnor, senior marketing manager for Linux enterprise systems with Unisys. “With the ES7000, this system was designed to be a mainframe running Intel processors. The core functionality that mainframes run, such as dynamic partitioning, was architected into the system from the very beginning.”

Since late 1997, Unisys has enjoyed a very close relationship with Microsoft Corp., to the extent that the computing giant played a not insignificant role in the development of Microsoft’s Windows Datacenter Server Edition. As a result, officials are anxious to position Unisys’ mainframe play as anything but a snubbing of Microsoft.

“Our relationship with Microsoft continues to be a very strong relationship,” Rodnor stresses. “This is not in place of Windows. This is really an incremental road that follows along our strategy of providing solutions for the enterprise. We feel [Windows and Linux are] almost separate markets.”

In the past, Unisys has supported operating environments other than Windows on the ES7000—i.e., Caldera’s OpenUnix and SCO’s UnixWare—but the vast majority of customers have opted for some version of Windows.

Unisys officials say that the company has seen increasing interest in Linux from many high-end customers, particularly in government accounts. “We have actually had Linux running on the ES7000 for over a year now, unofficially. We did that because there were certain customers, mostly federal-type arrangements, where they required a Linux solution, at least for an RFP. So what we did was, we certified it, but we weren’t actually selling it initially,” Rodnor says.

It seems likely that Linux could often be deployed along with Windows on the same hardware, but Rodnor stresses that most ES7000 Linux uptake will come at the expense of RISC-Unix, not Windows. “Where Linux really comes into play is with the Unix migration. We feel the ES7000 running Linux is a perfect platform for migrating off of Solaris, AIX, HP-UX because it’s basically the same code,” Rodnor argues.

Sales could be promising for Unisys. “Right now, with just Windows, 40 percent of our customers on the ES7000 are new customers every quarter for us, so we’re constantly moving into new customer accounts,” he says. “So I think with Linux—yes, it is an opportunity for us to talk with customers that may have sort of have avoided Microsoft for some reason.”

Rodnor also acknowledges that support for features like dynamic partitioning isn’t quite at parity with RISC-Unix, let alone mainframe, environments.

“What we’re showing [at Linux World] is sort of a technology preview. What we’re doing is at an eight-processor level, so you have to move eight processors back and forth,” he explains. “The low-level pieces of code are in [the Linux 2.6 kernel], but they only really allow us to move to eight processors. We have a road map that will allow us to take it down to four processors when it’s released for general use, and then we’ll be able to take it down to one processor.”

In this respect, Rodnor acknowledges, Unisys’ current implementation of dynamic partitioning may be more a proof of concept than anything else. “Not many applications are going to need” to dynamically allocate or de-allocate entire eight-way partitions, he concedes.

SLES 8 is available immediately on the ES7000, Rodnor says, and Unisys says it will soon be certified on SLES 9, which Novell announced last week. Support for Red Hat should be available by early next year. Unisys demonstrated the ES7000’s dynamic partitioning capabilities at Linux World; Rodnor says it won’t support that capability—perhaps at the four processor level—until early next year.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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