Unisys Forward: Fabric beyond mainframes

Mainframe maker Unisys has woven a new enterprise computing system it describes as a “fabric-based architecture”.

Branded as Forward, Unisys’ new architecture stitches together teams of Intel Xeon processors with a fast backplane and embroidered with the company’s own s-Par advanced secure partitioning.

Forward aims to help large businesses and government departments move from proprietary Unix systems.

Like a mainframe, not a mainframe

Australia-based Forward program manager Vic Herring says the new architecture is designed to cut through the problems organisations face when moving to new architectures. He says Forward brings mainframe levels of security and availability.

In other words Forward plays to Unisys’ strengths in building mission critical systems for organisations with big workloads. It ticks all the important 2013 enterprise computing boxes: Forward can be used for cloud computing, big data and run large ERP applications like SAP.

Virtual and then some

Herring says Forward is way ahead of other virtualisation systems. Instead of conventional virtual machines Forward provides a series of secure partitions tightly coupled to the Xeon processors. Each partition handles a specific workload and has its own dedicated resources: processor or processors, memory and input-output channels.

He says these resources don’t bounce up and down when other jobs stretch resources on other partitions – the way things can work with conventional virtual machines. He didn’t quite say that. Herring talked about resource contention and latency.

One of the features of Unisys’ fabric computing approach is that communications between each secure partition takes place at the same speed as memory transfers. Data doesn’t have to queue to get aboard the bus.

Herring says Forward uses software driven architecture. This means many things that would normally be done by hardware are software controlled. So, connecting two devices within the fabric no longer requires Ethernet cable but is done with a software command. Even devices like routers in effect become software routines. In this respect the technology resembles software defined networks.

Stealth security

Security is important to Unisys customers who often deal with large volumes of sensitive data. Each of the Forward partitions is secure in the sense that each partition is fully containerised. So if a job in one partition falls over, it doesn’t affect other partitions.

The new system also can be used with Unisys Stealth security software – which the company also sells as a standalone offering. Stealth uses cloaking, which means only authorised systems know a protected system is on the network. It also has encryption. In effect systems protected with Stealth are invisible.

Not cheap, but cheaper

Herring is frank about his company’s reputation. He says: “I know in the past Unisys hasn’t been the cheapest on the market”.

While it still isn’t playing in the bargain basement, he says Forward uses off-the-shelf components to deliver the enterprise computing power at the fraction of the cost of alternatives. Computer makers often throw numbers around, but Herring’s are impressive. He says Forward cuts capital costs by 50 percent or better and reduces the total cost of ownership by 40 percent.

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