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Unisys readies multifaceted server

With a new Itanium 2 server running Windows Server 2003, Unisys lays down another marker in its gamble on Intel-based systems running Microsoft software.

With a new heavy-duty Itanium 2 server running the forthcoming Windows Server 2003, Unisys is putting another marker down in its gamble on Intel-based systems running Microsoft software.

The server, its ES7000/560 model, which can accommodate up to 106 Intel processors, is unusual among Itanium 2 server designs in that it unites several architectures that large enterprises might otherwise use in separate servers. The maximum configuration comes with a single partition for 32 Xeon processors and two 16-processor partitions for Itanium 2 processors. Businesses also can add up to 42 blade servers.

The ES7000/560, with its official launch set for Thursday, follows by just a few weeks the release of the ES7000/500, which runs up to 32 Intel Xeon processors. It will make its debut the same day as Windows Server 2003, which will have its coming-out party at a San Francisco gala hosted by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

Intel sells the Itanium 2 processor for use in high-end systems and Xeons for midrange servers. The two chips run different software.

Mark Feverston, Unisys' vice president of platform marketing for enterprise servers, described the approach as "betting everything on Windows Server 2003."

The ES7000/560 uses what's referred to as CMP, or cellular multiprocessing, technology that allows business customers to partition the system so that several operating systems can run simultaneously. The feature could appeal to people consolidating several servers into one, where 32 processors might be assigned to a higher-importance level database application and 16 to running, say, a separate database application.

Prices start at $250,000. Unisys will begin selling the ES7000/500 on Thursday, but models with Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition won't ship until June.

One of the customers buying into the Unisys approach is New York-based JetBlue Airways, which started moving many of its critical back-end systems to ES7000 servers about six months ago. Budget-minded JetBlue, one of just a couple of profitable airlines, is big on standardization--it has settled on a single aircraft, the Airbus A320 (it has 41, with plans to add 12 more by the end of the year). CIO Jeff Cohen is bringing that approach to technology management as well, moving most operations to Microsoft software and consolidating on ES7000 servers.

The switch to Unisys servers is part of "a model where we were going to scale up rather than scaling out," Cohen said. JetBlue had been following a more clustered server approach, adding new systems as demand grew--one database application might spread from a single server to as many as 16 servers.

"From an administration perspective, that was pretty difficult," Cohen said. "If the application failed, it was difficult to tell where the problems were. So from a manageability perspective, it was more difficult; from an administrative perspective, it was more difficult; and in the end, from a scalability perspective, it was more difficult."

JetBlue started with a beta, or test, ES7000/560 server, later adding an ES7000/500. The airline plans to soon replace a Hewlett-Packard rx5670 Itanium server with another ES7000/560 for running its frequent-flyer program. All the servers run Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition--the 32-bit version on the 500 and the 64-bit version on the 560.

Power enough to persuade?
Even with satisfied early adopters on its side, Unisys faces tough going convincing large customers to make the move to Windows Server 2003.

"I wouldn't expect many customers to seriously consider moving to Windows Server 2003 much before 12 months after release," IDC analyst Al Gillen said. "Many customers will want to do their evaluation and testing first, and that could take some time for them to do."

In addition, Windows Server 2003 lacks the sophisticated kind of management tools commonly found on large-scale enterprise servers. Microsoft is revamping its system management software, but that process is expected to take three to five years.

To help fill the gap, Unisys released its Sentinel management software in March 2002. The company offers versions for server, application and database management. Unisys updated Server Sentinel last month.

Sentinel and similar management tools are often referred to as "autonomic" software, because they attempt to monitor and respond to changes on the server the same way the human nervous system does to stress. The software is designed to be self-healing, automatically repairing common problems such as memory leaks or software demanding too many resources. Sentinel can shut down a server in the event of hardware failure and restart with fewer processors or memory chips. It also sends to service personnel an alert about the problem and notifies Unisys technicians that a piece of hardware has failed.

A tool such as Sentinel is important, if Unisys hopes to woo customers concerned that Windows is not truly enterprise-ready.

"They aren't the only ones to develop these kind of tools," D.H. Brown analyst Rich Partridge said, "but what Unisys is offering is a consolidation vehicle that is fairly easily managed using them."

Good management features for Windows NT Server 4 customers could be important for companies considering a move to version 2003. Microsoft estimates that about 35 percent of Windows Server customers run 7-year-old version 4. Both Microsoft and Unisys executives have expressed their belief that this group will be the most likely to move quickly to Windows Server 2003.

Unisys, meanwhile, has to contend with the dominance of competitors such as IBM and HP. In terms of worldwide server shipments, the Blue Bell, Pa.-based company finds itself in the "other" category, ranking a lowly No. 21 in fourth-quarter 2002 market share, according to Gartner. But in server revenue, Unisys made a much stronger showing, capturing the No. 6 position.

All told, the server maker has sold about 1,000 ES7000 systems, which are in use in about 45 countries, according to Unisys. Seventy-five percent of systems are sold with 16 or more processors, and 18 percent replace Unix servers or mainframes. About 60 percent run Windows 2000 Datacenter Server, and 80 percent run Microsoft's SQL Server database. Around 40 percent of ES7000 servers go to new customers.