The first "Intel mainframe", the ES7000 enterprise server from Unisys, appeared on schedule in early May. It was announced at Comdex Fall 1999 and has been in use at a number of test sites since then.
The ES7000 itself was not used in the working demonstration run during Comdex; Unisys' trial "Data Center of the New Millennium" used related technology. However, analyst organisation The Aberdeen Group concluded that Unisys and Microsoft together could deliver a solution which could "compete on equal terms with any of today's Unix platforms". Giga took a similar view, claiming that Unisys is significantly ahead of its competitors in having the only Intel server capable of matching the performance of high-end Risc servers.
The ES7000 uses Unisys' cellular multiprocessing technology to support partitioning of up to 32 Intel processors, either as one single system or in varying combinations of four-processor units. Current systems typically use the Xeon III chip, but the ES7000 is capable of using Itanium when this ships. There are no immediate plans to move to a 64-processor format but Unisys claims that the technology is capable of supporting it.
The ES7000 has up to 64GB of memory in total, configurable according to partitioning, and 96 PCI slots. The claim that the product is a mainframe is based, in part, on its crossbar architecture, which allows components to have direct communication paths to one another, and the fact that it can be partitioned to simultaneously run Windows 2000, SCO Unixware and, when available, the 64-bit Unix operating system Monterey.
Ian Benn, marketing director of Unisys Systems and Technology, claims the mainframe tag is justified despite the apparent lack of typical mainframe I/O management capabilities and dynamic partitioning.
"The hardware is capable of managing I/O as required, with any limitations compared with traditional mainframes being purely on account of the operating system," he says.
Dynamic partitioning is notoriously difficult to achieve, and Unisys and Microsoft are jointly developing this facility within Windows 2000 Data Center Edition, drawing on existing Unisys technology.
Both ICL and Compaq intend to offer rebadged versions of the ES7000 server, although Compaq appears to be hedging its bets with the release of its own high-end Alpha servers, the GS Series.
Machines in the GSSeries range from the eight-way GS80 through to the 32-way GS320. They all run Tru64 Unix, Linux or OpenVMS and support mixed-speed CPUs. However, unlike the ES7000 and the Sun E10000 (Starfire), different components are not hot-swappable.
Windows 2000 Data Center is likely to be a prime platform for the ES7000, but the software is still in beta. Reports suggest that the expected shipping date of mid-2000 has slipped, with autumn now more likely. Intel's 64-bit Itanium chip also appears to be behind schedule and is unlikely to ship before late summer or autumn.
At present, the future direction of high-end enterprise computing is unclear. Sun is currently the market leader. Ian Meakin, product marketing manager for Sun Enterprise Servers, claims Sun is "years ahead of the competition".
According to Meakin, Sun's strength lies in offering a design in which each part uniquely complements the others. For example, the Solaris OS is optimised for the 64-bit Ultrasparc processor and makes efficient use of Sun's symmetrical multiprocessing technology to deliver an economical, powerful and flexible system.
However, Benn does not think Sun is as far ahead as Meakin claims, citing the considerable capability of the ES7000, which is designed to take advantage of powerful new features in the Data Center edition of Windows 2000 at comparatively low cost.
The fact that Microsoft discontinued support for the Alpha platform means Unisys does not directly compete with Compaq on Windows 2000. Benn argues that Windows 2000 will increasingly become the operating system of choice as enterprises look to cut down on the number of platforms supported. He also believes Unisys is in a good position to make inroads into Sun's dominance as well as meeting other rivals such as IBM, Compaq, Bull and Hewlett-Packard head-on.
Perhaps one important imponderable is how Linux will fare.
In an analysis paper published in spring 1999, IDC claimed Linux would increase its deployment at a compound annual growth rate of 25% from 1999 to 2003, compared with between 10% and 12% for all other operating environments combined, and become the dominant server operating system by the end of that period.
Meakin thinks Linux is still immature, but Sun, IBM, Dell, Compaq, HP and others all support the operating system in various ways.
IBM recently ported Linux to its S/390 mainframe with the capability, under VM/ EMS, of running thousands of copies on the same CPU as virtual machines. Not only would this represent significant cost savings on licensing, it would also represent considerable reductions in both direct hardware costs and the space required to house banks of separate Windows 2000 servers once certain minimum limits had been reached.
Beau Vrolyk, senior vice-president for servers with supercomputer firm SGI, predicts that 10 years from now the only operating systems around in the high-end server market will be Windows, Monterey and Linux.
Data Center of the next millennium
In November 1999 at Comdex Fall show in Las Vegas, Unisys led a project partnering Microsoft, Cisco, EMC and others in a working demonstration of their developing technologies. Some 225,000 delegates were pre-registered on a 50 million object Active Directory with a system of 53 ES5000 servers managed from a single console using NetIQ and Windows 2000 Remote Administration Terminal Server.
The statistics given were: