Unisys has made Linux available from now, on all its ES7000 servers - a move that it claims leapfrogs enterprise server competitors Sun, HP and IBM. It will work with Novell and Red Hat to provide customers - mainly business, government and scientific - with services and support.

The company also announced a dynamic partitioning capability on Linux for Intel-based servers - another claimed first. This links the power of Unisys ES7000 enterprise servers with Linux, providing an alternative to expensive, proprietary RISC-based systems.

"Our enterprise customers are demanding industrial-strength Linux solutions and we are responding in a revolutionary way," said Unisys president and chief operating officer Joe McGrath. "Four years ago, we were the first to enter the high-end Windows market. Now it's time to shake up the Unix/RISC market. By offering customers a bold, new legitimate choice in the Unix/RISC space, Unisys is positioned to be an enterprise Linux market leader."

Dynamic partitioning is the ability to shift processing power to the applications that need it, as they need it, with no human intervention. The company described it as a critical function for organisations running complex and demanding workloads so that, if an application suddenly experiences a spike in demand, the ES7000 with Linux will automatically allocate additional processing power to that application. When usage goes back to normal, so does the amount of processing power assigned to that application.

Unisys said its engineers have drawn on their mainframe and enterprise computing experience to bring what was previously only available to users of expensive proprietary systems to standard Intel-based servers, for the first time.

However, IBM does deliver similar if not identical technology. For example, IBM's iServer series allows dynamic resource allocation, including under Linux [pdf] as well as AIX and OS/400. And in a recent interview, Microsoft server software chief Bob Muglia described the technology as "interesting", saying that Microsoft was not yet able to deliver such technology. This is despite the fact that Microsoft was reported as concluding an agreement with Unisys way back in 1999 to develop dynamic partitioning.

In addition, Unisys said it has optimised its Server Sentinel software, which allows IT managers to manage both Windows and Linux environments from one screen - which Unisys claimed industry analysts said was unique. Unisys is also developing several other enhancements to the Sentinel offering including Application Sentinel, Database Sentinel and Security Sentinel.

"The entrance of Unisys into the Linux market is a great endorsement of the Linux platform," said Hal Bennett, vice president of business development of Linux vendor Novell. "Combining the scalability and performance power of Novell's SuSE Linux Enterprise Server with Unisys deep experience in mission critical computing gives customers a compelling new option for deploying Linux at the core of the enterprise."

"Standardisation has been a huge trend in the server industry, especially since standard high volume servers based on the Intel Pentium Pro processor entered the market nearly ten years ago," said Richard Dracott, general manager of Enterprise Marketing and Planning for Intel's Enterprise Platforms Group. "Unisys, long a price/performance leader in high-end Intel processor-based systems, is continuing this trend by bringing true enterprise class functionality to the Linux environment, to large scale multi-processing systems based on both Intel Xeon processors MP and Itanium 2 processors."

"Expect to see Unisys expand its ES7000 server offerings very soon - further enabling RISC-free environments for mission-critical solutions," McGrath said.

Linux is a potential life-saver for Unisys. It has a small share of the mid-range server market - it was seventh in 2003, according to Gartner - but is the only sizable player without its own proprietary Unix user base to protect, unlike major rivals Sun, HP and IBM.

It even launched a $25m advertising campaign against the already-flat proprietary Unix market in 2002. It repeated the exercise in 2003, alongside Microsoft, claiming that "35 percent of businesses running Sun's Solaris were interested in migrating to another platform".

The company is clearly banking on Linux, along with Windows Server, as a key lifeline to the future and, in a clearly growing server market, looks likely to survive.