Unisys recently announced added on-demand processing power for its business servers, claiming it is the first time that a "true" version of the technology has been available for Windows and Linux servers.

Unisys has produced a series of ES7000 Real-Time Capacity (RTC) servers that include four inactive Intel processors along with four, eight or 12 active ones. Unisys will charge a 10 per cent upfront premium for the extra CPUs. But if a user eventually turns them on, the final cost will be no different than if they were initially purchased as active processors.

What's the thinking behind the move? Techworld asked Michael Hjalsted, the company's European server marketing manager, to explain.

Q: We've not seen this type of approach to continuous computing before. How many other vendors are doing it?
A: It is unique - we are the first to approaching it this way for 32 and 64-bit versions of both Linux and Windows. Others have similar approaches -- you know who they are, the usual suspects, IBM, Sun and HP -- but their systems involve their own 64-bit operating systems only.

Q: Why are you just giving away processors?
A: We're not giving away processors -- when we engage with the customer, we assess their needs and capacity and decide what is the right infrastructure for them. Real-time computing is for those with spikes and peaks at certain times of year or month when they need that spare capacity but only at specific times. Key is that we can implement it on a temporary or a permanent basis. If they don't need it, then we won't sell it.

Q: What sorts of configurations can you supply?
A: We have three basic configurations -- an eight-way with four processors active and four dark, a 12-way with eight active with four dark, and a 16-way with 12 active and four dark. We could add other configurations with more processors in future if customer demand warrants it.

Q: What kinds of customers are looking for this kind of flexibility?
A: One example is an educational body that publish exam results twice a year. For 15 days twice a year, students are desperate to log on and get their results. For the rest of the time, the institution doesn't need that capacity. So then they add capacity over that period and remove it afterwards. Also retail companies have Xmas and spring sales and so on. They need additional capacity for the extra load on their IT systems at those times. Another is an Internet-based retail system -- they don't know what demand is going to be and this allows them to add capacity just in case.

Q: But all companies experience peaks and troughs in demand. All run accounts and other processes at given times every month. Are they potential customers?
A: The system is aimed at large corporates, which as you say run accounts packages and processes at end of the month. So yes, that would be appropriate. The key thing for them is that is any cost incurred in adding and removing capacity as required comes off the operational not the capital funds, which helps the CIO manage their IT budget.

Also the whole market is going this way. Customers demand more flexibility in the way they invest. They only want to invest in the IT they only are going to use, and want to maximise utilisation, and get more from their assets.

Q: What are the key benefits?
A: Customers sometimes say that they want to buy additional capacity upfront -- but that their demands on IT vary, so they want their systems to be flexible what they don't want is an inflexible system that cannot scale. It is also moving toward utility computing -- it's a first step towards that.

Q: Can't virtualisation provide some of those benefits?
A: It can up to a point but when you're talking about servers with eight to 16 processors, it's not the solution. Yes you can virtualise servers for and implement a virtual environment. But you can't scale virtual database applications for example, and our customers still run Oracle applications for instance on dedicated machines, not least because you need several dedicated processors to run it. And if they need more capacity, they can now just add more.

Q: Would they not be better off outsourcing if they need that degree of flexibility?
A: It is a solution but governance rules mean that it may not be a good idea. Many companies are happy to outsource stuff like payroll but core business processes, less so. They want to retain control. One key reason for that is compliance -- Sarbanes-Oxley and so on, especially in financial companies. Some processes are too important for our business to outsource.

Q: How many customers are likely to take up this approach?
A: Over time we believe we will see large part of our major clients taking up this solution as it's a better way of utilising their IT budgets. We believe from our research that it will be between 25-35 per cent across Europe, 25 per cent in the UK.