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Unisys to release "NT mainframe"

Unisys will next year release what it calls a "mainframe for NT," a powerful server that uses 32 Intel processors on the Windows NT operating system.

Unisys will next year release what it calls a "mainframe for NT," a powerful server that incorporates 32 Intel processors and may herald the use of Microsoft's Windows NT operating system on powerful server computers at large corporations.

The company's 1998 server plans, which also include 8- and 12-processor systems, revolve around a grander strategy of making Unisys a linchpin for taking NT and servers based on Intel chips further up the corporate computing food chain, according to Leo Daiuto, group vice president and general manager of the company's enterprise server division.

Although NT is gaining in popularity in corporate environments, the operating system can't be used for the most complex database applications, which continue to be run on Unix or legacy systems. Typically, NT is used on lower-level servers that work with one or two processors. Unisys's plan is to use its Unix and mainframe expertise as well as its extensive service force in the creation of a larger, and more powerful, NT server than most vendors can offer.

Unisys will also engage in extensive cross-marketing and technological exchange programs with both Microsoft and Intel as part of this effort, he said. About 2,000 Unisys engineers will be certified on NT while the company seeks approval for its complex server designs from Intel. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

"To drive this market, we are partnering with Intel and Microsoft," Daiuto said. "Most of our customers can't [yet] migrate their high-end operations to NT."

Unisys's most daunting ambition in this area will be the 32-processor server based on its upcoming ServerPlus Cellular Multi-Processing (CMP) technology.

"It's a mainframe for NT," Daiuto explained. The server will use both the Pentium II processor and Intel's 64-bit Merced processors due in 1999.

Under its CMP technology, the 32-processor server will be able to function as one server using shared memory or as four separate eight-processor servers clustered together. Under the clustering configuration, each of the server units can use different operating systems. Two units, for instance, can be running NT while two run Unix, he said.

CMP, if successful, will set standards for both multiprocessing--which involves tying microprocessors together to run a single application--and clustering, which involves stringing together processors running different applications in a way to increase efficiency.

Eventually, the clustered computing units will be able to share and distribute computing tasks. Known informally as "load balancing," this is a capability of Unix servers, but not NT machines.

Servers based on the CMP architecture will go into beta testing in the first quarter next year and come out at the end of 1998 or early in 1999.

Unisys will also be releasing its own architecture for handling data flow in and out of such devices as hard drives, called Input/Output or I/O. Its Enterprise I/O will be released in the second quarter of 1998.

The technology is to be similar but more powerful than the analogous I2O specification released by Intel earlier this year. Under both architectures, a processor is dedicated to control data input and output, which alleviates the computing burden of the main processors.

Like CMP, Unisys will sell its I/O technology to other manufacturers under OEM agreements. "No one has signed yet," Daiuto said, but the company is in discussions with major manufacturers.

In the meantime, Unisys will release a 12-processor Pentium Pro server in the first quarter and a eight-processor Pentium II server based on the Profusion architecture Intel acquired when it bought Corollary earlier this year.

These developments, if successful, will give Unisys a leading edge position in NT servers, but there exists skepticism on how great the demand for them will be.

"How many people who need it need it bad enough to justify the costs?" asked Amir Ahari, server analyst with International Data Corporation.

For the most part, customers are using NT servers for local, departmental functions, he said, not complex applications or even functions that push the limits of NT's powers. A number of manufacturers, for instance, sell NT systems capable of four-way symmetric multiprocessing. Applications exist which can take advantage of four processors on NT as well. Yet, most of these servers are not sold with four processors.

"If you look at the history of Unisys, they are somewhat different," Ahari said. "They are trying to be one step ahead of the pack."