Sad Day: Unisys Abandons Its Mainframe Processors

I frequently write about IBM's virtuous mainframe cycle. IBM continues to pump lots of investment into its mainframe-related research and development because it makes business sense. Growing sales promote more investments, which promote more sales, and so on. The new zEnterprise EC12 and IBM's latest round of truly new and innovative software products for zEnterprise are among the direct results of those ongoing investments.

Unfortunately Unisys hasn't been able to sustain that sort of virtuous cycle. Unisys's announcement this week is, in my view, a sad closing chapter in that long history. The announcement is that Unisys has given up on its own processor designs even for its high-end mainframes. From now on everything will run in emulation.

Unisys was formed when Sperry and Burroughs merged many years ago. Sperry heritage mainframes trace their lineage to UNIVAC and Remington Rand, and they run the OS 2200 operating system. Burroughs heritage mainframes run MCP. There are still a few installations around, but Unisys's clear path (pun intended) is to manage their decline as best they can. Now with software emulation on server hardware sourced from Dell.

If you look across the industry right now you see that the most successful enterprise IT company (IBM) has intensified its focus on vertical integration: hardware and software co-designed and optimized together in common purpose. And the most successful consumer IT company (Apple) is doing exactly the same thing: the chips inside that new iPhone 5 are Apple's design, with Apple's unique power saving features. Oracle, with its Exadata products, and Microsoft, with its announced (but not yet shipping) Surface tablet products, are trying to do the same thing. It's a recipe that works and works well if you can sustain long-term investments to stay in the lead.

I completely understand why Unisys abandoned processor design. Good R&D is expensive, and Unisys can't afford it. I understand it, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

With all due respect to Timothy Prickett Morgan (the author of the article linked above), emulation is not special, and HP should not buy Unisys (or vice versa). HP effectively outsourced its processor designs to Intel many years ago (Itanium), and that has been an unmitigated disaster for HP and HP's shareholders. HP needs market-relevant innovation, badly, after over a decade of corporate mismanagement and plundering. Again, look at IBM and Apple. Both companies have made relatively small acquisitions to bolster their own R&D efforts, and to nurture and grow those other great ideas as part of a common purpose.

Finally I should point out that Unisys's announcement is one more reason for their customers to consider switching over to IBM zEnterprise and z/OS. UBS made that move, as an example. That really is the clear path forward.

by Timothy Sipples October 11, 2012 in History, Systems Technology
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