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My Job is to Hallucinate: Unisys CTO

March 19, 2014
My Job is to Hallucinate: Unisys CTO
Jim Thompson, CTO, Unisys, talks to Computerworld India about the company’s Forward! solution, the state of the Unix mission critical market and how India figures in Unisys’s future plans.
Unisys, a company that can trace its lineage back to the late 1800’s when it was involved in manufacturing typewriters, has travelled a long path since then to being what it is today. While it is not heard of that much as other similar companies, it is a testament to its ability to continuously adapt to various market conditions that it continues to be successful in servicing today’s mission critical environments. We spoke to Unisys CTO Jim Thompson, who was in Bangalore to judge the Cloud 20/20 competition, about the company’s new solution, Forward!, his plans for the Indian market, the state of the Unix mission critical market and how India figures in Unisys’s future plans.

What does your role at Unisys entail?

One of my best jokes is that “my job is to hallucinate” in many respects. You know what the difference between a hallucination and a vision is? It’s how many people see it. (laughs) I want to create a vision and get many people to see it. 

It’s an interesting role to have in a company. Innovation is one of those things that I spend a lot of time thinking about and wondering why some places do it better than others.

As a company, this is an exciting time for us as we are pushing a couple of technologies like Stealth, Forward!, ITSM – technologies that are relevant to the cloud - the hybrid cloud. 

Could you tell us more about the Forward! Solution?

Forward! is a fabric computing environment and it is a framework designed to realise the promise of software defined computing in all aspects. When you consider SDN, SDS, these things are being delivered in ways that are limited in all forms. [At a time] when the market is looking for a kind of a uniform computing utility - and we have been talking about utility computing for decades - I think the technology is finally there where organizations can buy the compute in the dimensions and volumes that they want it in, either to run an application or perform a service or even store information – whatever it maybe. That’s why we call this the Hybrid enterprise, the merging of cloud computing wnd traditional data centre. It’s for this that we think you need an infrastructure that runs across the environment that is uniform – what this means is that you need a common compute. And it’s for this that we have chosen Intel’s Xeon as the common compute, and built programs around how we migrate PA-RISC / Unix workloads. These things run on Itanium - which has an event horizon in its not too distant future - or Power (series servers from IBM) - the word from IBM is that it is pushing hard on the Power series.

So we believe that you need a uniform architecture around Xeon. We want to facilitate the movement of PA-RISC workloads that are seen as mission critical, into the Forward! space. We believe that we have a unique capability in that most of the work we do today is centred around mission critical environments on our ClearPath mainframes. The activities we do in telecommunications, transportation, finance and public sector segments tend to be mission critical.

We think there is a huge opportunity to leverage this using Xeon technology and Linux technology, from our partners at Rad Hat and Suse, and to deliver business critical environments that run on Linux for the PA-RISC world. We are working with SAP to deliver SAP ERP on the Forward! platform. We are also working on consolidation. So these are 3 use cases we are working on – consolidation, workload PA-RISC / Unix migration, and SAP.

Imagine a system that is comprised of standardized Intel building blocks where each node on a blade brings lot of I/O capability, a lot of memory capability. Now Blades tend to be limited in that sense.  So you band them together with a high speed low latency medium – we are using Infiniband right now. If you look closely this is what you will find at the heart of high performance computing. We are turning it into a general purpose computer.

What sets Forward! apart from other similar solutions in the market?

What makes Forward! different is a set of technologies called s-Par - partitioning as opposed to virtualization. The thing that brings the party for us is that if you look at traditional virtualization, only about half of the world is virtualized. So you have to ask yourself “why is that?”

The reason is that workloads are different. It’s those workloads that are easy to virtualize that have been virtualized – for instance the web facing tier of an app. So the easy ones are done and the ones remaining are those that have really complicated requirements for deterministic performance; those that can’t suffer from any variability in the performance that comes with virtualization. Or it could be that they have a set of security constraints they are just not comfortable sharing a memory space with another operating environment, or that they are so large that it doesn’t make sense to virtualize.

There are some who will say that virtualized environments don’t give all the business critical attributes that they want, so Forward! is very much meant to speak to this space. We are not trying to compete with traditional virtualization and in fact the architecture says that it runs side by side. They should be orchestrated together.

 As a purist or a scientist, this is a bare metal hypervisor but its implementation model says it is not going to create partitions that share cores or I/O ports or I/O slots. It’s our way of providing containment, as there is no longer a single point of failure. 

What was the impetus behind the creation of this technology?

We had conducted a survey in 2005-2006 to find a virtualization technology that would give us the characteristics of partition so that we could deliver it against the mission critical workload. Not finding it caused us to build the technology. It was built first for our proprietary mainframe technology, the ClearPath suite and it has been shipping on the ClearPath suite since 2010. It was built for the enterprise level, mission critical, highly sensitive workload and it has proven itself in this space.

Nowadays, it’s about what applications you want to run. For this lets just create containers of the right size and drop them in there and if they happen to be Linux, its fine; if its Windows its fine; If its one of our proprietary OS’s its fine. The beauty of this is that any system assets you free up can be re-provisioned as anything. You could take something that is running our ClearPath MCP OS and decommission it and re-commission it as a Windows environment or whatever it is you need it to be. If you look at the source of the converged infrastructure players with their mixing between Power, Xeon and Itanium, consider that Itanium blades will run HP-UX, Power blades will run AIX and Xeon blades will run everything else. So if you decommission some Power workload, those blades aren’t doing anything else, and this goes back to (why we are providing) the uniform infrastructure concept where customers are willing to buy into a uniform infrastructure that will give them this great flexibility about how you want to deploy it. 

This ability for repurposing must be the main USP of the solution.

Yes I absolutely think so. I don’t see anything like this in the market place. Again we are not doing this on a blade based architecture either, so it can be as big or small as you need it to be. Sometimes just scaling things up changes the performance dynamic of the system to the point where it was better than it was before.

Our hallmark has always been “change the tech without impacting the customer’s investment in software”. There is no better example of this than considering our proprietary environment systems. Take the MCP which came from Burroughs and the OS 2200 which came from Sperry Univac - both very old (environments). We can run the same object code that runs on proprietary processors on Intel Xeon processors with no recompilation, no reformatting of the data and you (still) get performance. It’s a mean feat to change the processing architecture out from underneath the software stack and continue to have it run in a very transparent way. But this goes back to protecting the customer’s investments. Clearly if he is willing to recompile it, I can give him better performance. But I can run his code for as long as he wants to run that code in that form. If he wants to recompile, that’s wonderful and we can give him better performance. If he wants to migrate pieces of it around the complex and to different environments, so be it. We can go ahead and do that as we have the infrastructure in place to support such stuff. 

People have been talking about how the Unix market has not been having a smooth run of late. Do you see Intel joining with you as a sign of things to come – of the eventual demise of the Unix segment? Do you see your product going on to dominate the Unix environment?

I certainly would like to believe all those things and I have no problem if that comes true. I think that I have to let Intel’s worlds speak for themselves. They have made a number of press releases that have included Forward! in them, and they have been very supportive of the work we do - they have cited us as being the most secure Xeon platform that there is. So I think those things speak for themselves. The Unix market is what the Unix market is, there are different parts of it that are growing, parts that are declining, but as a whole it is probably declining. So then you have to analyse why people are moving away from it? Because it’s proprietary in many respects, and those skills are not what organizations want. So they look at something like Linux and see it as being more open, more readily adoptable, more flexible and having all the goodness they are looking for. From the risk perspective, the enterprises will think ‘if I were to make this jump from a traditional Unix or whatever to this other space, what am I doing to my business in the process? What am I exposing myself to?’ So I think we are uniquely positioned as a vendor who has credibility in the enterprise space. Moreover we are not really pushing one architecture of our own; we are pushing one that the world owns. And I think that is another powerful message and we have taken a deliberate choice to stop producing proprietary processors and embrace Xeon as the processor architecture of choice for Unisys. We stopped producing MCP processors for Burroughs line and we are going to stop producing proprietary processors for OS2200 line and deliver everything that the customers had on Xeon – performance, security, resiliency.

How important is India in Unisys’s overall plans?

We have a large and significant investment in India, both on the services and engineering fronts. I try to get to Bangalore once or twice a year. (This is significant because)I have not been in the company’s South California lab in 15-16 months.

India is a key component of our cost-efficient global delivery model and our ability to innovate and provide consistently high levels of client service. A good part of everything that happens at Unisys is happening in Unisys India. It cuts across all verticals, portfolios, and functional areas. We are targeting specific growth opportunities for Unisys within India tied to our areas of strength. We are focused on working with key alliance partners to serve global accounts that have a presence in India in the Public Sector, Transportation (Aviation) (eg: Air India, Delhi International Airport, and most recently Mumbai International Airport) and Financial Services industries. India also plays a critical role in the Unisys global sourcing strategy, providing services to many international clients.

Unisys Global Sourcing India (UGSI) has the largest contingent of Unisys global offshore delivery resources, with an employee base that now exceeds 4,000.

Given that the India organizations tend to be quite conservative in their approach to adopting new technologies, how do see your foresee Unisys’s chances of being able to successfully penetrate the Indian market?

The good news is that many of our customer are also conservative. If you think about it they are the likes of the bankers and airline companies, and they have zero tolerance for disruption in their day.  One of our financial clients had recently moved from our proprietary systems to the Xeon based systems and this is a firm that clears trillions of dollar every evening - they are a bank clearing operation. You can imagine the impact of them not being able to moving the money. It’s not just newspaper headlines, its regulatory issues and real economic impact. So they are viewed by government regulators as an essential utility and are highly scrutinized and managed. So we moved them from a proprietary technology to a Xeon technology and they cleared 1.3 trillion dollars on Friday and they cleared 1.3 trillion dollars on Monday and no one noticed. So in many respects that was a very depressing day for me because this is my life’s work and no one noticed but on the other hand the very point of my life’s work is that nobody notices. At the end of the day you have to see the wonderful outcome in the context of the customer but I would really like somebody to notice when we do stuff like that (laughs). Now clearly the customer knows and they are happy that we have done it. That’s the hallmark of what we are trying to do here. We are a different kind of company – we don’t make much noise but you see us on a path to push the technological envelope. Our story, while different, revolves around a set of well proven technologies such as Intel Xeon and not a lot of people are going to doubt its stability in the Indian market, or any other, for its suitability to the task. The technology we are using for partitioning is not brand new either; it has been in the market for 4 years. It’s proven itself in some pretty rough spots. So that’s kind of the way we speak to those sets of messages, is that we peel back the onion and then talk about the techs we are bringing in to play. And it is our role as a responsible tech partner to bring proven tech to critical business problems. We don’t do casual computing. We are not just a web server, this is not about light weight stuff this is the serious core business. 

Who would you say are your major competitors?

From a technology space, it’s all of the suppliers, its HP, it’s going to be Dell, it’s going to be IBM. We are all there together. What differentiates us I think is the service commitment to our customers, to deliver enterprise class business critical service and our focus on business critical problems. We are not trying to deal with commodity computing. We don’t produce Xeon servers any longer. We use partners to deliver that technology, and I think that it’s been highly commoditized so you need to deliver choices. Intel is a very strong partner of ours. We spend a fair amount of time talking to Intel and with the people that we use to build our platform products, which are the very people we compete with us as well. It’s kind of an interesting world we live in, an ecosystem where you buy from each other and compete with each other at different levels. But the point is we are trying to go after a very specific piece of the business with a very specific mind-set, and this is a niche market. You are not going to find a Unisys machine in your home any time soon. (laughs)

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