Although the field of players has diminished, IBM is not the only mainframe supplier these days and it was not the only vendor that revamped its mainframe line in recent weeks. Unisys has also tweaked its Clearpath mainframe line and, like IBM, has seen its mainframe business stabilize as big customers continue to consume lots of MIPS. Timothy Prickett Morgan reports…
Computer Business Review spoke to Chander Khanna, general manager of Unisys’ ClearPath solutions and services business unit, prior to the impending IBM System z9 announcements, which was also when Unisys was cooking up some enhancements to its Clearpath Plus Libra, as well as building out the utility computing features of the Clearpath platform.
While Unisys does not break out its product line revenues by line in its financial reports, Mr Khanna was keen on demonstrating (to the extent that he is allowed by regulations regarding fair disclosure) that like IBM, Unisys has not seen its mainframe business dry up, even after more than a decade and a half of commercialized Unix and a decade of commercialized Windows servers.
He said the Clearpath Libra product line has done particularly well in recent years, growing revenues by around 3% in an IT market that was growing at between 5% and 6%. The Clearpath Dorado line has seen flat revenues in the past five years or so, but Mr Khanna is hopeful that recent changes to the product line and a swing back toward centralized, virtualized systems running at high utilization – as opposed to a sprawl of Unix and Windows servers running at low utilization – could help the Dorado line see some growth looking ahead.
He also said that on both product lines, MIPS (millions of instructions per second – a measure of computing speed) shipped into customer accounts continue to grow. This is very similar to the curve that IBM’s own zSeries mainframe business has seen, which stands to reason because both Unisys and IBM have done a lot of work to make their respective mainframe product lines more relevant and more open to new workloads to help bolster their sales.
Unisys is somewhat different from IBM, however, in that it has been aggressively pursuing a consolidated hardware strategy. The advent of the ES7000 Wintel mainframes back in late 2000 was nothing more than Unisys taking its experience in creating mainframes and creating a server architecture called Cellular MultiProcessing (CMP) that allowed Unisys to create the first big boxes to run Microsoft’s Windows 2000 Server Datacenter Edition.
Since that time, the Clearpath mainframes have adopted technologies that are based heavily on the ES7000 frames, albeit with custom mainframe engines (which are actually fabbed by IBM, ironically) instead of Intel’s Xeon and Itanium processors. And in some cases – with the MCP platform, to be specific – Unisys has ported its mainframe environment to run on Intel X86 processors.
We’ve been able to get more and more hardware convergence, explained Mr Khanna. But this has become less and less important to many customers, even though it is important to Unisys as a manufacturer.
How far Unisys will push convergence – will it port OS2200 to Intel iron and reduce itself to the single ES7000 platform running on 64-bit Xeon and/or Itanium processors? Mr Khanna is not saying, and he changes the subject when asked, just as Big Blue does when you ask about the rumored Project ECLipz to consolidate the iSeries, pSeries, and zSeries hardware platforms onto one Power-based server hardware platform.
Specifically, Unisys has ported the Java runtime environment to all of its machines – Clearpath Libra and Dorado as well as ES7000s – and has partnered with JBoss to deliver a single Java application server layer that spans these platforms as they run MCP, OS2200, Windows, and Linux. Unisys also allows Clearpath customers to plug X86 server boards into their mainframe machines, and they can run Windows or Linux on these boards.
This is akin to IBM supporting Linux on its mainframe processors in that either way, mainframe customers are adding MIPS to their mainframes to drive these non-mainframe operating systems.
But perhaps most importantly, the support for Java is a way to keep customers who are using MCP and OS2200 on Clearpath servers and thinking about deploying Java-based applications on those Clearpath platforms. Moreover, the support for Java might even mean that existing and new Java workloads that might have ended up on other boxes get pulled onto the Clearpaths. The Java support is also bringing new software vendors to the Clearpath installed base – many probably didn’t exist a decade ago and probably had no idea what a mainframe was when they were founded.
Unisys has also been pushing utility pricing as a differentiator for the Clearpath lines with its pay per use pricing options; the company is working on a new offering called pay per service pricing (due later this year), which will charge customers for usage based on the dominant metrics they use to measure their own success: customer accounts, transactions processed, and so forth. While IBM offers MSU pricing on software, you have to activate processors at the core level.
Since March 2004, Unisys has been offering utility pricing on hardware that works in 25 MIPS increments, and now it can offer granularity on processor pricing down to the 1 MIPS level. Pay per service will take utility pricing one step further and get customers out of thinking about MIPS and into thinking about their business. The pay per service offering will be more like a cell phone plan than a traditional way to buy servers, said Mr Khanna. It will be true, flexible pricing.
Because Unisys is not interested in getting into a MIPS battle with IBM – IBM ships bigger single OS images, but only the biggest mainframe shops care. Unisys is, however, keen on putting a lot of MIPS in one box. Unisys also wants to offer similar price/performance on its mainframes compared to IBM’s zSeries because both sets of boxes run COBOL, which is somewhat portable across the platforms.
We no longer believe that capacity and raw performance remain the primary concern of today’s mainframe customer, said Mr Khanna. That race is over and, quite frankly, everybody has won. Business flexibility, high utilization of capital equipment, reduced cost and the ability to pay for what is needed when it is needed will be the foundation for the next great battles in mainframe computing.