Unisys Maps Possible Shift of Its Mainframes to Intel Chips

Joint development deal with NEC sets stage for move from proprietary CPUs

Unisys Corp. is putting all of its mainframes on an Intel hardware path and ultimately may end the use of its internally developed CMOS processors.

The potential shift of the full ClearPath mainframe line to Intel Corp.'s CPUs stems from a joint development agreement that Unisys announced last week with NEC Corp. for high-end servers. But there aren't any specific development plans yet, and a Unisys spokesman described the interest in Intel processors on ClearPath as "directional" - not carved in stone.

The partnership with NEC came one week after Unisys posted a preliminary third-quarter loss of $54.3 million and disclosed plans to cut its 36,000-person workforce by 10% over the next year.

The Blue Bell, Pa.-based company also said it would focus resources on high-growth technology markets while continuing to invest in operating systems and software development for ClearPath and its ES7000 server line.

Growing Stronger

Greg Schweizer, a systems administrator and Unisys mainframe user at Oregonian Publishing Co. in Portland, Ore., said any move by the vendor away from hardware development, combined with an increased focus on software and services, "should make Unisys stronger."

Schweizer also said he may be able to save money if Unisys lets users move its OS 2200 mainframe operating system to servers based on commodity processors.

Technology Details

Unisys offers two lines of mainframes as part of its ClearPath family.

  • ClearPath Dorado: Runs the OS 2200 operating system and uses proprietary CMOS processors on all models.

  • ClearPath Libra: Runs the MCP operating system and uses CMOS processors on high-end machines. Unisys offers a choice of CMOS and Intel CPUs on midrange models but only Intel devices on low-end systems.

  • Road maps detailing the product development plans with NEC won't be available until the two companies finalize their agreement in the first quarter of 2006, said Unisys spokesman Guy Esnouf.

    A migration away from the CMOS processors will depend on Intel's ability to at least match their performance, according to Esnouf. He added that regardless of what decision is made on the hardware, Unisys will continue to develop and support OS 2200 and MCP, its other mainframe operating system. Some ClearPath models with MCP already can run on Intel chips (see box).

    "Obviously, we're not going to do anything until we're happy that the Intel processor technology is where it needs to be," Esnouf said. "In time, we would plan that ClearPath would run on Intel rather than on the current CMOS. But we're not going there now."

    Esnouf also said that if users want to stay on the CMOS hardware in the future, "that's where they will stay. We're not going to try to force them off."

    Marian Ritland, development and operations manager at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, runs an MCP-based ClearPath mainframe that's powered by Intel chips. She said it has been obvious to users that Unisys is heading toward a single hardware platform for its mainframes.

    But Ritland, who is also chairwoman of the Unite Inc. Unisys user group in St. Clair Shores, Minn., said the vendor is moving cautiously and giving users a choice of technologies "at a pace that allows people to pick and choose."

    Because the CMOS-based mainframes are "a legacy and presumably shrinking market opportunity, it's hard to see Unisys being able to justify continued processor development there," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H.

    Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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