Unisys boosts performance on ClearPath mainframes

Its new secure partitioning virtualization technology allows Unisys to integrate specialty engines into its updated Libra and Dorado mainframes

Unisys has introduced a homegrown virtualization technology to boost performance for certain workloads on its ClearPath mainframe systems, including "modern" applications such as Java servers and PHP programs.

Unisys also updated its mainframe lineup with the Libra 4100 series and the Dorado 4100 series, both midrange systems that will ship in October, it said Tuesday. The Libra 4100 will include the virtualization technology at launch, while the Dorado systems will get it in about 18 months, said Bill Maclean, vice president of ClearPath portfolio management at Unisys.

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The technology, which Unisys calls sPar -- short for secure partitioning -- is a form of virtualization that divides the mainframe into several partitions. One runs the MCP or OS 2200 mainframe environment, while the other partitions run "specialty engines" designed for particular workloads.

Unisys has offered specialty engines for some time, but they run on a separate physical server connected via a high-speed interconnect. SPar allows Unisys to build them directly into its mainframes. Each secure partition is assigned its own processor core and communicates through memory queues, which offers better performance than connecting to an outside server. The on-board engines are also more secure and reduce setup times, Maclean said.

Specialty engines are also offered by IBM for its system Z mainframes. They provide a way for mainframes to support a wider range of applications, and thus open the door to a new generation of programmers. "There's a lot more Java programmers around than there are COBOL programmers," Maclean said.

Supporting new workloads is important for both IBM and Unisys if they want to keep mainframes relevant and attractive, said Brad Day, a principal analyst with Forrester Research.

The sPar technology might appeal to customers with excess capacity in a ClearPath system, Day said. If they upgrade to the 4100 they could use the additional capacity to run applications that they might otherwise put on standard x86 servers -- but on the 4100 they would get the security and reliability of a mainframe.

The Libra 4100 ships with two JProcessor specialty engines and one ePortal specialty engine. The JProcessor engine is for Java workloads such as an application server. It can also run scripting languages like PHP, which was used to build the Drupal open-source content management system.

Unisys said it had tested Drupal on the Libra 4100. "It uses the ClearPath database to store and manage information, so even though it's a Java program you can use the MCP operating environment for all your backup and disaster recovery functions," Maclean said.

The ePortal engine can take an existing ClearPath application and deliver it as a Web service, or to a handheld device like an iPhone or iPad. Unisys expects to offer other specialty engines with sPar over time, including one for cryptography and another for MQ messaging.

Unisys is in the midst of transitioning its mainframes from its own proprietary processors to Intel Xeon chips. A layer of firmware adapts its MCP and OS 2200 operating systems to the Intel instruction set. Its entry-level and midrange systems already run on Xeon processors. It plans to produce another generation of its own chips before moving its high-end mainframes to the Intel architecture in about 2014 or 2015, Maclean said.

The integrated specialty engines are optional. They will ship with all Libra 4100 systems, and if customers decide they want to use them they can buy a license key to enable them. The JProcessor engines are $20,000 each and the ePortal engines are $25,000 each.

Unisys has been developing sPar for several years. It first conceived it for use with its standard Intel-based servers as a rival to VMware. But it decided that competing with VMware wouldn't be "beneficial" and developed the technology for its mainframes instead, Maclean said.

The Libra 4100 and Dorado 4100 systems announced Tuesday are both four-socket systems based on six-core Xeon chips, and both offer a significant performance boost over their predecessors, according to Unisys. The single-image system capacity for the Libra 4100, for example, jumps from 800 MIPS to 1750 MIPs compared to the Libra 4000, while single-processor performance is up from 200 MIPS to 300 MIPS. The entry price for the Libra 4100 is around $550,000. Pricing for the Dorado 4100 wasn't immediately available.

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