Unisys' Updates to Libra, Dorado Lines Keep Mainframes Vibrant

Specialty engines and a new virtualization facility are keeping Unisys mainframes in the spotlight and customers interested.

Old mainframes never die. Nor, increasingly, do they fade away. ''This has long been true of IBM Corp.'s System z platform, but Big Blue isn't the only player in the mainframe business. As IBM continues to update and refresh its System z mainframe line, other mainframe players like to trumpet the viability of their own Big Iron lines.

Consider Unisys Corp., with its rich history in mainframes -- from the erstwhile Sperry Corp. and Burroughs Corp. to the seminal UNIVAC. This week the company updated its Libra and Dorado mainframe lines, touting a new all-Intel architecture, an all-new virtualization facility (dubbed Secure Partitioning, or sPAR), and a quartet of specialty engines that Unisys says are designed to simplify (and economize) hosting of some workloads.

Unisys' Big Iron refresh comes by way of its Libra 4100, the first of its ClearPath mainframes to support sPAR. Unisys' Libra-branded mainframes run the MCP operating system, developed by the former Burroughs; its Dorado-branded systems run OS 2200, developed by the former Sperry. (OS 2200 descends from the operating system -- Exec 8 -- that was used to power UNIVAC mainframes.)

With plans to introduce a Dorado-branded 4100 series mainframe (complete with sPAR support), Unisys is delivering a Libra-branded 4100 at launch. The Dorado 4100 will come later, promises Bill MacLean, vice president of ClearPath and AB Suite business with Unisys.

It's been a long time since mainframes were last on the endangered species list.

Unisys officials, much like their IBM counterparts, believe they know why customers continue to stay the course on Big Iron. According to MacLean, the cost of replicating mainframe-like performance, capacity, security, manageability, reliability, and availability is prohibitively expensive. True, customers considered doing as much when mainframes were still on the endangered species list -- and when mainframe vendors likewise weren't investing in mainframe modernization or mainframe interoperability technologies.

Now that vendors such as IBM, Unisys, Fujitsu, Hitachi, NEC, and Groupe Bull (which still sells its GCOS 8 mainframes in Europe) are investing in R&D to update their mainframe lines, customer interest is returning.

"Basically, we've had customers who have really seriously looked at alternatives and they can't find anything that will meet their needs. In order to get the performance our customers require, they can't just migrate these applications: they have to basically rewrite the application, because commodity operating environments aren't designed in the same fashion. We see that very heavily in banking, where there's batch closing requirements," MacLean comments.

Inertia and prohibitively expensive switching costs aren't the only reasons customers are staying put on mainframe systems, MacLean maintains.

He cites the mainframe's superior security model and points to the performance (and economic) advantages of running certain kinds of workloads (such as Java applications and computationally intensive encryption tasks) on the Libra and Dorado mainframes, thanks to Unisys' JProcessor and Crypto specialty engines.

"We're fundamentally hacker-proof, not just because our software's good, but because of the architecture of the system. It's a [security model] that was conceived a long time ago, but which is still state of the art," MacLean says.

Unisys offers two additional specialty engines: QProcessor (designed to accelerate WebSphereMQ workloads) and ePortal (a Web services engine that now supports mobile devices, in addition to conventional clients).

Like IBM, Unisys continues to aggressively enlarge the capacity of its mainframe systems. The economics of capacity and cost in the IBM versus the Unisys mainframe models don't lend themselves to comparison; Unisys doesn't claim to offer anything quite like IBM's "mainframe technology dividend".

With its new 4100-series systems, Unisys is effectively doubling the single-image capacity of its mainframe line. The new Libra 4100 mainframes support a single-image capacity of up to 1,750 MIPS (single-image capacity had previously been limited to 800 MIPS); when it ships, the Dorado 4100 will almost triple the single-image capacity of its predecessor, weighing in at 1,600 MIPS (as distinct to the 600 MIPS Unisys currently supports).

Implemented in tandem with sPAR -- which is reminiscent of the "Solaris Containers" virtualization scheme first offered by Sun Microsystems Inc. with Solaris 10 -- Unisys Libra 4100 mainframes can host four discrete images of up to 1,750 MIPS each. (Dorado 4100 systems will be able to host four discrete images of 1,600 MIPS each.) Each image gets its own dedicated physical resources, MacLean explains.

"Basically, what we've done [with sPAR] is establish the equivalent of physical, free-standing server environments. What distinguishes it is that each of those four partitions [is] the equivalent of a free-standing server, so each one owns whole processors, whole segments of memory, and whole I/O channels. There's no I/O sharing."

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