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Unisys explores Intel path for mainframes

Unisys explores Intel path for mainframes

A deal announced Tuesday between Unisys and NEC to produce high-end servers may lead to a migration from the mainframe ClearPath CMOS processor to Intel-based chips.

Road maps won't be finalized until the agreement with NEC is completed in the first quarter of 2006, and any migration away from CMOS will depend on Intel's ability to provide a processor that delivers performance at least as good as the CMOS chip, said Guy Esnouf, a spokesman for Blue Bell, Pa.-based Unisys.

"Obviously, we're not going to do anything until we're happy the Intel processor technology is where it needs to be," said Esnouf. "We foresee a time when customers will be able to make that switch without any degradation of performance. 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 customers want to stay on CMOS, "that's where they will stay -- we're not going to try to force them off."

In making the announcement, NEC and Unisys said they had signed a memorandum of understanding to negotiate a partnership and collaborate in research and development.

This would mean that the ClearPath OS2200 mainframe operating systems, which now run on CMOS ClearPath systems, would be ported to run on an Intel system, said Esnouf. He noted that the company intends to continue to offer upgrades for customers and to invest in research and development on the OS 2200 systems -- as well as its other mainframe operating system, MCP.

A migration off CMOS could save money for ClearPath mainframe user Greg Schweizer, a systems administrator at Oregonian Publishing Co. in Portland, Ore. Any Unisys plan that allows users to move the mainframe operating system to a commodity server "will be very well received, I think." Oregonian Publishing runs custom-built applications on its two-processor Unisys mainframe.

Moreover, focusing on systems and services instead of processor development "should make Unisys stronger," said Schweizer.

Schweizer said his understanding -- based on customer briefings by Unisys -- is that any potential move to Intel will happen only if the chip maker can produce chips as good as CMOS. "That's what they've told us, and I believe that," he said.

Marian Ritland, development and operations manager at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire, began using a ClearPath-based mainframe running MCP on Intel chips in April after previously using a CMOS-based system. She said it's been obvious to users that Unisys is heading to a single hardware platform.

But Ritland, who is also chairwoman of a Unisys user group said Unisys "has been proceeding cautiously in this direction" and is giving users a choice of environments "at a pace that allows people to pick and choose."

Regarding the CMOS mainframes, given "that this is 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.


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