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Unisys lights up Xeon-based mainframes

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Mainframe maker Unisys has made no secret of the fact that its long-term goal is to stop making its own mainframe engines and run both of its MCP and OS 2200 operating system platforms atop machines using Intel's Xeon processors.

That day has not yet arrived, but with the delivery of the Xeon 7500 processors this year and a revamped midrange ClearPath mainframe lineup launching today, Unisys is one step closer to getting out of the chip designing racket.

Unisys is launching four machines today, the ClearPath Libra 4100 running the MCP platform (Burroughs) and three ClearPath Dorado 4100s supporting the OS 2200 platform (Sperry). There might only be one Libra 4100 machine, but this will be the first of the Unisys mainframes to get a homegrown virtualization hypervisor called secure partitioning, or sPar for short, that Unisys has been working on for more than two years.

El Reg told you about it here a little more than two years ago, and it was not entirely clear why Unisys wanted to create its own hypervisor.

But the answer, at least for now, is not to compete against VMware, Microsoft, and Microsoft in the x64-based hypervisor racket, but rather to create a hypervisor that is controlled by MCP and OS 2200 but which allows Windows or Linux workloads, such as Java application servers or cryptographic accelerators, to be moved into sPars on Xeon-based mainframes. This is a much cleaner solution that using network-connected, outboard specialty engines as Unisys has been doing to a number of years.

The basic hardware platform behind the ClearPath 4100 machines is four-socket server using a six-core Xeon X7542 from Intel. This chip has HyperThreading turned off and offers the highest clock speed in the Xeon 7500 lineup. Bill Maclean, vice president of ClearPath portfolio management at Unisys, says the company went with the six-core variant to boost the single thread performance of the MCP and OS 2200 workloads.

Unisys has a partnership with NEC to create high-end Xeon MP servers, with its "Monster Xeon" machine announced two years ago being the first such product. Unisys has resold x64-based servers made by Sun Microsystems and Dell as well as making its own, and Maclean was not in a mood to divulge who the supplier was behind this ClearPath 4100 box, but did say it came from a third party supplier and that Unisys can - and does - change partners as technology and market conditions dictate. (Wouldn't it be funny if the new box was made by Acer, with Gateway having been eaten by Acer and the ex-Gateway executive who sold the company to Acer now running Unisys? But I think it is a Dell box because it is using an iDrac6 enterprise remote management service processor, and specifically I think it is a Dell PowerEdge R910.)

What is important to Unisys customers is that the ClearPath 4100 machines offer more oomph on single-threaded and batch workloads than the current ClearPath 4000 series boxes, which were launched a little more than a year ago. Unisys cannot yet replace its largest ClearPath 700 series mainframes, which have proprietary CMOS processors designed by Unisys and fabbed by IBM and which were updated about a year and a half ago, with Xeon-based iron.

Maclean says because of issues relating to single-threaded and I/O subsystem performance and how this relates to middleware emulation software crafted by Unisys to make its mainframe workloads run atop a Windows or Linux kernel, this process will take years. Like two to three years for MCP workloads to scale as far on Xeon-based machines as they can on the successors to the CMOS Libra 700 boxes and a little bit longer on the Dorado OS 2200 machines. There's a lot of tuning Unisys needs to do to map instruction lookahead and do pipeline management in this emulation firmware to future Intel chips to squeeze out the performance mainframe shops expect.

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