The Channel logo


By | Timothy Prickett Morgan 26th May 2009 04:02

Unisys soups up mainframe engines

MIPs on the cheap

With the US Memorial Day holiday behind us, IT vendors can get down to business for a month or two before everyone prepares to go on summer holiday and try to forget the economic downturn for a while. Server maker Unisys is the first out of the chute with new iron today, launching three new ClearPath mainframes that offer more MIPS for less money.

Well, less money that last year's mainframes. Mainframe pricing is a but of a time machine compared to the cost of computing capacity on alternative RISC/Unix and x64 platforms, but mainframes are no less immune to the effect of Moore's Law than any computing platform. It is just that the legacy nature of the applications running on mainframes - they're old, they work, and they're difficult to move - allows IBM, Unisys, Fujitsu, NEC, and Hitachi to charge a lot more for capacity than would be justifiable in a world where mainframes directly compete against Unix boxes because they ran the same code.

The legacy nature of that code means governments and big banks - the kind of stodgy operations that are sometimes slow to embrace change in IT operations - means that gimmicks that have already stopped working (or never worked in the first place) can be used in a mainframe launch. A case in point: the 24-hour mainframe launch event that Unisys is hosting in Second Life.

"No need for expensive travel," says the invitation to the Second Life event. "Instead, transport yourself virtually to an Alpine Executive Center. Interact with your peers and Unisys experts. Assume a new identity. Ride hot air balloons. Skate with mainframes on the pond. Cavort in a world where the adventure is virtual and the news of one of the most important announcements in the distinguished history of Unisys ClearPath servers is real."

Unisys Mainframe Skating

Where's my curling iron?

I think it would be much more interesting to trip the mainframe with a karate move and then play a game of curling with it. (Can you buy a broom cheap in Second Life?) In the meantime, we'll just stick to the feeds and speeds and prices of the new iron.

The three new mainframes - one in the ClearPath Libra line and two in the ClearPath Dorado line - come in the wake of a series of mainframe announcements that Unisys made back in October. Unisys, of course, is the result of the merger of the Burroughs and Sperry mainframe businesses, and the Libra products run Burroughs' MCP operating system and the Dorado line runs Sperry's OS 2200 operating system.

At this point, the mainframes share much of the same technology with each other as well as with Unisys' ES7000 high-end Xeon and Itanium iron, although Unisys is still designing and tweaking its own CMOS mainframe engines for the MCP and OS 2200 iron and intends to keep doing that because mainframes drive a lot of sales at the company, indirectly more than directly as it turns out. (IBM's Microelectronics division is the foundry for mainframe engines created by Unisys, and the current CMOS mainframe engines are dual-core processors).

That said, Unisys has ported MCP to run atop Windows on Xeon engines many years ago, and in 2007, Unisys delivered a variant of OS 2200 running atop a Linux kernel that in turn runs on Xeon iron. Last fall, the Dorado (OS 2200) line got a dual-core CMOS mainframe engine rated at 525 MIPS (apparently over a pair of cores) and providing 5,700 MIPS of aggregate computing capacity with 32 cores (that's eight two-socket cell boards, or 16 processors in the Unisys lingo) in a single system image. These engines went into the Dorado 780/790 series.

The new Libra (MCP) line is getting a similar upgrade today with its own 780/790 models, with its own dual-core mainframe engine rated at 520 MIPS and having an aggregate of 5,500 MIPS in a single image that spans up to 16 cores. That 520 MIPS rating seems to be for a single core (not a pair as in the Dorado line), and the machine has one, two, or four cell boards.

On an engine-by-engine basis, Unisys says that the Libra 780/790 machine has about 10 per cent more oomph over the prior ClearPath Libra 680/690 models, and with some modest price cuts for capacity and the use of low-cost specialty co-processor engines like IBM has on its System z mainframes, Unisys is able to make a compelling enough economic case for keeping applications running natively on real mainframes for this to still be a business.

By the way, Unisys was on the front end of utility computing, pay-per-user wave early in this new century, and the difference between X80 and X90 models in either mainframe line is the way they are priced. The X80 models are regular machines with list pricing that lets customers acquire the full capacity of the configuration they buy, while the X90 models come with all the processors, memory, and I/O cards in the box and have metered pricing.

Bill Maclean, vice president of ClearPath programs at Unisys, says that depending on the model, somewhere between 70 and 80 per cent of mainframes that are shipped today have metered pricing because customers only want to pay for what they use. That said, there are still a few shops that always buy the biggest mainframe they can and are willing to amortize the costs across a long period (and it stands to reason that this is still the cheapest way to get MIPS provided that the machine is running at very high utilization).

Add Xeon and Linux as needed

The Libra 780 can run MCP across all of the processors in the box in a single image, and the machine can scale down as low as 300 MIPS with one core activated. And like all ClearPath mainframes, Unisys allows customers to slot in Xeon-based cell boards and run Windows or Linux on them and to hook these Xeon engines tightly through the backplane to mainframe workloads. The Libra 780/790 box only supports x64 cell boards using Intel's "Dunnington" Xeon 7400 processors, which come in quad-core and hex-core variants. (These cell boards are sold in the ES7600R servers, which debuted last September).

Each Libra 780/790 mainframe cell board sports from 4 GB to 128 GB of DDR2 main memory, which is formatted down to 3 GB to 96 GB of addressable memory for MCP workloads. (Presumably there is some memory sparing magic going on). Each processor module supports up to 16 GB of physical memory and 16 Fibre Channel I/O ports and 8 Gigabit Ethernet ports. The Libra 790 metered machine can span from as low as 105 MIPS to 3,640 MIPS in metered mode and has the same memory and I/O options.

The Libra 780/790 machines are available now, and a base configuration costs $3.3m.

On the Dorado (OS 2200) side of the ClearPath product line, Unisys is launching a geared-down box aimed at midrange shops that need somewhere between 600 and 800 MIPS of capacity and who don't expect to grow their workloads beyond 1,000 MIPS over the next couple of years. The Dorado 740/750 machine uses geared-down versions of the dual-core CMOS engine used in the Dorado 780/790 line, and then also cuts back on the I/O ports and memory expansion. MIPS for MIPS, the midrange Dorado 740/750 box will be about 12 per cent less expensive than an equivalently configured entry Dorado 780/790 box, according to Maclean.

The Dorado 740 offers between 150 and 1,000 MIPS of raw performance and the Dorado 750 delivers between 50 and 700 MIPS of metered performance. Compared to prior midrange Dorado boxes, the Dorado 740/750 has twice the networking throughput and 1.5 to 2 times the I/O capacity, which is what Unisys mainframe shops are often more concerned about than MIPS. The Dorado 740/750 line has a starting price of $2m and is also available now.

For the truly budget conscious OS 2200 shops, Unisys is kicking out a new Xeon-based OS 2200 mainframe, the Dorado 4050, which is rated at between 10 and 60 MIPS. The Dorado 4050 uses the same goosed I/O subsystems as the true CMOS mainframes, and compared to the IX4500, IX4600, and Dorado 140 mainframes that are five or more years old - the target customers for the Dorado 4050 box - this entry machine offers 128 per cent more CPU capacity and 300 per cent more I/O capacity.

Given the clock speed of the Xeon chips (at least compared to the old Unisys mainframes), even with emulation overhead, Maclean says that the single-thread performance improvement is "dramatic." Batch jobs run a lot faster and interactive response times get a lot better. The performance is so good, Maclean says that some IT shops using its older mainframes will be able to eliminate a shift of workers who babysit batch jobs as they run.

By the way, the Dorado 4050 hardware is not based on the "Monster Xeon" ES7600R server that Unisys co-designed with NEC and launched last September. This is peculiar, but Maclean says Unisys is using a different four-socket "Tigerton" platform that fits into a 4U space. (It is probably a Dell box with the labels scratched off). The Dorado 4050 has 2.93 GHz Xeon 7350 processors and two cores in the box are allowed to run OS 2200 (which is a 36-bit operating system).

The machine is configured with 64 GB of main memory (which is mirrored for data protection) and is formatted to the 4 gigaword (GW) format used by OS 2200. The box has eight Gigabit Ethernet interfaces, for 146 GB drives for firmware and OS 2200, and I/O expansion module with its own I/O processor, and a PCI expansion channel module that supports eight Fibre Channel ports and four SCSI ports. In a base configuration, a Dorado 4050 costs $420,000, and it is only available as a metered box.

In addition to the new servers, Unisys is also rolling out MCP 12.1, which in addition to supporting the new Libra iron also has an upgraded version of Unisys' Eclipse tools that interfaces with its COBOL development tools as well as Java tools. The DMS2 database that comes with MCP has some tweaks, as usual, and there are the usual performance and security tweaks that all operating system makers do. OS 2200 12.0 also rolls out today, with support for COBOL in the same Eclipse tools and some tweaks in the DMS hierarchical and RDMS relational databases used with OS 2200 platforms to allow the databases to scale better on multithreaded iron.

Unisys is also shifting to lower-cost specialty engines to support Java workloads. In the past, like IBM, the ClearPath specialty engines were really mainframe engines with cheaper prices that could only run restricted workloads, not full operating systems and databases. To give customers better bang for the buck as well as faster time to market, Unisys is now deploying its licensed version of the Sun HotSpot JVM and JBoss Web application server on x64 iron that has multiple parallel connections back into the MCP and OS 2200 mainframes.

As far as applications are concerned, this x64 appliance is an MCP or OS 2200 mainframe engine, much as Java accelerators created by Azul Systems attach to mainframe and Unix boxes and run Java code but the applications are none the wiser about it. These JProcessor appliances cost $15,000 for the base box and the integration back into the Unisys mainframes. Customers have to pay for JBoss support separately.

Unisys today is also announcing a new specialty appliance called the QProcessor, which is the same x64 box that has been equipped to run IBM's WebSphere MQ message queuing middleware. Unisys had worked with IBM to port WebSphere MQ natively to OS 2200 mainframes a number of years ago, but MQ is a very intense workload and mainframe shops don't want to pay millions of dollars to run it. Moreover, as IBM tweaks WebSphere MQ (which most customers run on x64 iron), Unisys is always scrambling to port its tweaks to the Dorado iron and OS 2200 operating system, which is a pain in the neck. The Q Processor appliance fixes this.

Unisys is also announcing today that its ePortal specialty engine, which is still native on MCP and OS 2200 machines, has been tweaked so it can feed COBOL applications out to Apple iPhone and iPod machines with their touch screen interfaces.

Finally, Unisys is adding support for EMC's Symmetrix V-Max disk arrays for the ClearPath mainframe lineup starting today. ®

comment icon Read 6 comments on this article alert Send corrections


Frank Jennings

What do you do? Use manual typwriters or live in a Scottish croft? Our man advises
A rusty petrol pump at an abandoned gas station. Pic by Silvia B. Jakiello via shutterstock

Trevor Pott

Among other things, Active Directory needs an overhaul
Baby looks taken aback/shocked/affronted. Photo by Shutterstock

Kat Hall

Plans for 2 million FTTP connections in next four years 'not enough'
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella


League of gentlemen poster - Tubbs and Edward at the local shop. Copyright BBC
One reselling man tells his tale of woe