Can Forward halt Unisys' decade of decline?

One of the great engineering driven technology companies is digging into its legacy to find a way forward.
Written by Rob O'Neill, Contributor

A Unisys executive at the launch of the company’s new Forward platform last week was asked whether this would put the company “back in the game”.

The executive responded that she didn’t think Unisys had ever been out of the game.

There is no doubt the company is still here, but its revenue figures over the last decade tell an ugly story: the market is shifting elsewhere. From total revenues of US$5.9 billion in 2003, Unisys has not once registered a revenue gain in the last ten years.

In 2012 revenue was down again, to $3.7 billion.

unisys chart
Ugly numbers: US$2 billion in sales lost.

All the more urgent and important, then, is Unisys’s latest roll of the technology die with the launch of Forward, a fabric computing platform that marries key elements of Unisys mainframe engineering smarts with Intel processors.

Forward brings Unisys’ s-Par secure partitioning to Intel, allowing organisations to migrate from Unix to secure, cloud-based Linux or Windows operating environments. Through a close research partnership with SAP, Unisys is also promising substantial performance gains for that company’s  ERP users.

Just as compelling compelling to those locked into expensive and aging legacies, though, are promised capital cost cuts of over 50% and total cost of ownership savings of as much as 40%.

Needless to say, Unisys is also offering consulting, design, migration and integration services to potential Forward customers. That’s important because while the company will be looking for improved technology sales from the launch – and better customer retention through offering a credible upgrade path – it only made $514 million in technology sales in 2012.

The rests of its income, nearly $3.2 billion, came from services.

With Forward, Unisys is taking a leap into the white-hot virtualisation and cloud markets  and bringing something tangible to the table. Partitioning on the processor combined with Unisys’ other technologies, such as Stealth, deliver new levels of security to cloud environments.

Given Unisys' core customer base in financial services, Government (including large security agencies) and airlines among others, such considerations are very much top of mind. Forward could be the migration nudge they’ve been waiting for.

Even better if it attracts new punters.

Chief executive and chairman Ed Coleman said organisations won’t have to choose between the predictability and security of proprietary systems and the flexibility and cost benefits of Linux and Windows.

“With Forward … they can choose one platform for their mission critical workloads that gives them the performance and security that they need today while providing the flexibility to manage new applications and disruptive technologies as they emerge.”

With Forward, each secure partition becomes a containerised server executing workloads such as memory and I/O, each with their own dedicated resources, eliminating contention and latency.

Vic Herring, Unisys’ Forward and Clearpath program manager in Asia-Pacific, says that something other virtualisation vendors simply don’t have. If one partition falls over, he says, the others are not affected.

It is a software-driven architecture with a tech-agnostic backbone, he says. Applications do not have to be specifically designed to run on Forward.

“It will take a while to distil quite how important this change in thinking and architecture is,” he says.

Married with Stealth, security is boosted even further through “cloaking” and encryption that render parts of the system within the datacentre invisible on the network. This can be applied right down to the level of each Forward partition.

Partitions communicate at memory speed and nodes within forward are connected through Infiniband.

Unisys has suffered in the market for a decade and even seemed directionless at times. But in resisting a clean break with its past and instead using its engineering legacy to find a real point of difference it may just come up trumps.

Herring described how the company is not only hiring graduates, but also offering ways for former and retired engineering staff to continue to contribute to development.

Unisys is certainly homing in on a real market pain-point as the pressure builds on organisations to address the cost and constraints of their legacy environments.

Herring cites an IDG survey showing performance, security and skills, in that order, as the biggest concerns facing organisations when migrating mission critical applications.

“Some things just don’t get virtualised,” he says, describing Forward as a “revolutionary” secure computing architecture with virtually unlimited scalability.

Forward arrives in December with packages beginning at $89,000.

Unisys also launched Stealth for Apps, a new iteration of Stealth that extends its cloaking functionality out to mobile applications being deployed to mobile workforces.

Editorial standards