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IBM, Unisys work to rejuvenate mainframes

Big Blue adds features, beefs up training efforts in China; rival Unisys debuts new line and pricing plan.

IBM has taken several new steps to keep its mainframe server line a vital part of computing, including adding features and an expanding sales and training in China, while Unisys has upgraded its rival products.

With the changes, Big Blue's zSeries mainframes can now run Java programs faster and divvy up jobs among groups of IBM computers, the company announced Thursday. Big Blue also added a pared-down but less-expensive option for customers who want one mainframe to take over for another in the event of a crash.

In recent years, IBM has taken several measures to counter the idea that mainframes are dinosaurs doomed for extinction, as cheaper Windows, Unix and Linux servers gradually get higher-end features. For a start, IBM picked aggressive dinosaur code names such as T-Rex and Raptor, but more significantly, the company has been adding mainstream technology.

In China, IBM has expanded its mainframe sales and technical support staff from 18 to 60 while recruiting four universities to train students.

"One of the challenges in China is skills. We're trying to beef up our infrastructure to support that emerging market," said Colette Martin, a product director. One key mainframe market in China is banking, she added.

The Java boost comes from a specialized module called the zSeries Application Assist Processor, or zAAP, introduced in April but useful only with the new version 1.6 of the z/OS operating system that became available at the end of September.

By the end of the year, mainframes will be able to participate in a system called Enterprise Workload Manager (eWLM) that monitors application performance and allocates computing resources in a group of IBM servers.

Currently, the technology works only on IBM's other server lines; IBM had hoped to bring it to the mainframe by the end of 2003. Later, Big Blue plans to extend eWLM so that it can control Sun Microsystems' servers and other competitors' machines as well.

IBM dominates the mainframe market today, largely because other companies have abandoned their efforts. One stubbornly persists, though: Unisys.

Last week, Unisys introduced its new ClearPath Plus Dorado line of mainframes, whose processors boost performance 50 percent over previous models, according to the company. In addition, Unisys introduced a metered pricing arrangement that lets customers quickly tap into more computing power, paying according to how much is consumed.

One of IBM's efforts to modernize the mainframe has been to add the ability to run the Linux operating system. Unisys added its version of this idea to the Dorado models, which can run Linux from Red Hat or Novell on separate Intel processors in the same mainframe cabinet.

Another mainframe rejuvenation effort from Unisys is a service called Application Modernization for either its own or IBM customers.