Unisys' Forward proves its steel supporting mission-critical SAP

After disappointing first quarter, Unisys is counting on new products to lift its fortunes, not least its Forward fabric architecture designed to boost application performance in virtualised environments.
Written by Rob O'Neill, Contributor

Unisys is counting on a set of new security and cloud technologies to lift its fortunes in the second half of the financial year after surprising analysts on the downside in the first quarter.

On April 22, Unisys delivered lower than expected first quarter results showing revenue down 6% and a loss of $53.5 million compared with $33.9 million on the same quarter of 2013.

The company, however, will take heart after a beta-test of its new Forward fabric architecture at Chicago-based JMC Steel delivered a 40% boost for the pipe- and tube-maker's mission-critical SAP applications.

Forward, announced last October, brings Unisys' proprietary s-Par secure partitioning to Intel Xeon processors. Forward partitions create a secure “container” of dedicated resources to each application, answering challenges of resource contention which can dog the performance of mission-critical applications in virtualised environments.

At the same time as Forward, Unisys announced Stealth for Mobile, an addition to the Stealth family of cyber security products which masks endpoints, protects critical data and aids regulatory compliance.

Most recently, on May 1, the company released Choreographer, an extension of its Secure Private Cloud product, now including the ability to automate the management of virtual workloads internally and on both Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure.

By breaking Forward out of its mainframe server legacy, Unisys is making a play for customers aiming to migrate from costly proprietary environments to cheaper virtualised Windows or Linux infrastructures while not compromising performance or security.

It is also tapping into some of the most compelling trends in ICT by supporting new critical workloads such as Big Data.

Bill Kempert, director of IT infrastructure at JMC Steel, said he believed Forward could deliver significant value as a platform for future mission-critical workloads as the company shifted to SAP's HANA platform and other big-data applications.

JMC Steel had been experiencing performance bottlenecks on its current Windows 2008 production system.

Jim Thompson, CTO of technology products at Unisys, told ZDNet.com that for mission critical systems, organisations need high availability, deterministic performance (that is, it runs the same way every time) and assurance that data isn’t compromised.

Dedicated physical servers are often required to achieve this.

"As a result, mission-critical systems and applications tend to be the last applications to be virtualised, if at all, due to concerns about security and the predictability of performance in virtualised environments."

Thompson denied providing dedicated resources to such applications amounted to a retreat from virtualisation. 

Forward, he said, offers an alternative based on secure partitioning which still improves resource utilisation.

"You could describe sPar as 'shared nothing' virtualisation as opposed to the 'shared everything' virtualisation found in VMWare, Kernel-based Virtual Machines (KVM) and Xen," he said. 

"sPar is not a retreat from virtualisation but rather a refinement of it. Partitioning uses the same virtualisation technology hardware used by traditional shared everything hypervisors but provides an environment designed for predictable performance, security and error containment – all areas that traditional shared everything virtualisation schemes cannot address." 

Thompson said "not all applications are created equal". Organisations need to consider what level of security and high-availability performance they really require – what level of risk they can afford to accept for each particular application.

Partitioning configures a hardware platform into multiple containers, isolating applications from one another so there is no contention for resources. Each container has, for instance, dedicated processing, memory and I/O.  

The result is isolation, error containment and deterministic performance for every application running on the physical platform.

"Virtualisation, on the other hand, abstracts the physical resources and allocates them to virtual servers. Virtualisation enables high utilisation, but at the potential cost of resource contention and performance degradation."

In mission-critical environments, he said, the fear is that one workload can affect the security, performance and the stability of another.

"In some cases this is not a risk worth taking." 

Partitioning can also save a lot of proactive work.

For instance, users could opt for a product like Red Hat's VMTurbo proactive monitoring stack. Thompson said VMTurbo attempts to mitigate problems in virtual machines by managing and throttling the applications. However, it does not address the "very real problems" of security and error isolation/containment.

Even other partitioning products, such as Hitachi’s LPAR which partitions blades, can share certain resources and so are not "shared nothing". LPAR falls short on security and error isolation by sharing Network Interface Controllers (NIC) and Fibre Channel ports, Thompson said.

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