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Unisys pushes NT envelope

Unisys's new server architecture handles up to 32 processors, meaning Intel chips and Microsoft's Windows NT could go deeper into the enterprise computing arena.

Unisys introduced an Intel-based server architecture that can accommodate up to 32 processors, raising the possibility that Intel chips and Microsoft's Windows NT operating system will go another step deeper into the enterprise computing arena.

Termed cellular multiprocessing (CMP) technology, the upcoming architecture allows server vendors to take a 32-processor server and segment it into discreet, independently functioning parts, a technique called clustering. A CMP-based server containing 32 chips can, for instance, function as a single "32-way" server, as four independent "8-way" servers, or two 4-way servers surrounding 8- or 16-way servers.

The architecture allows customers to segregate applications and data within a server. It also allows for the mixing of operating systems. In other words, a UnixWare cluster can run on some portions of the server while the rest are running NT.

Servers incorporating CMP will come out in early 1999 and be capable of handling Xeon or Merced processors. Xeon is the name of the Intel's server chips coming mid-year, while the 64-bit Merced chips will come out in late 1999. Windows NT 5.0, which will come out early next year, is being pitched by Unisys as one of the principal operating systems for CMP.

If it succeeds, CMP technology will be vastly more powerful than current Intel-NT-based systems. At the moment, Pentium Pro chips can't scale more than four chips while Xeon servers will be able to accommodate eight processors. Also, NT doesn't efficiently work with more than four to six processors at once, although NT 5.0 will allow for greater scaling.

CMP conceivably gives both platforms an entry way to larger computing environments. Unix-based servers can incorporate many more processors, meaning many times the computing power.

Despite these advances, making Windows NT competitive in multiprocessing, 64-bit computing platform environments could take some time, said Dataquest analyst Jerry Sheridan. "It will take a while to build up the infrastructure, to get the applications ported, to wring out all of that."

Sheridan guesses NT will be truly ready by 2001 or 2002, "but the question is what will Unix systems do in the meantime," he adds.

James Gruener, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group, asserted that Unisys also faces some marketing hurdles. Rather than buy one 32-processor server that functions as eight four-way processors severs, corporate customers could just buy eight smaller servers based around a field-tested architecture.

"The question will be how well these components interoperate," he said. "Right now, it's an unproven design."

Last month, Unisys announced a 12-processor server computer based on Intel's aging Pentium Pro chip and Windows NT, becoming the first company to do so. But most buyers of the 12-way systems will run Unix, a Unisys representative admitted.