Last Updated on March 23, 2022 by Dave Farquhar
Unisys was once the second largest computer company in the world, and the name of one of its products, Univac, was briefly synonymous with the word “computer.” It’s no longer the force it once was, but Unisys survives today, in a slimmed-down form.
Unisys still produces computer hardware, including mainframes. But like its rival IBM, it makes most of its money in software, service, and integration.
Where Unisys came from
Unisys formed when two IBM rivals, Sperry and Burroughs, merged. Burroughs bought Sperry for $4.8 billion in 1986, in what was then the largest acquisition in computer industry history. One of the reasons for the size of the deal was a poison pill Sperry employed to fight off a hostile takeover. The combined company took the name Unisys, an amalgamation of the words united, information, and systems.
In retrospect, the timing of the merger could have been better. The combined company was worth over $10 billion in 1986. But the shift from mainframes to smaller computers was well under way. Unisys did produce Intel x86-based desktop PCs that ran MS-DOS and Windows during the late 1980s and into the late 1990s, but the systems weren’t nearly as popular as less costly PCs from companies like Dell and Compaq. Working in IT in the 90s, I rarely came across its PCs in the field.
Most Gen Xers remember Unisys for its patents that limited the use of GIF files until the patents expired in 2004. That’s if they remember the name at all. The patents also led to the creation of gzip, for similar reasons.
What Unisys does now
The rise of Unix and Windows NT encroached on Unisys’ once-booming mainframe business.That contributed to Unisys’ long, steady decline and eventual removal from the S&P 500 in 2008. But mainframes never completely went away. That’s one reason Unisys is still around.
I have seen many CIOs live and die by their plans to migrate legacy systems off mainframes and onto Unix, Linux, and Windows. That transition started in the early 90s and any CIO who bets their success on shutting down the remaining mainframe applications where predecessors failed probably won’t last long. Mainframes are like COBOL. Everyone thinks they’re long gone. But there’s always some critical business function that no one ever figured out how to successfully transition to newer, cheaper technology.
Unisys mainframes seem to be the secret no one talks about. Unisys still sells a line of mainframes called Clearpath, capable of running the old Sperry OS 2200 or Burroughs MCP operating systems. They no longer run on its own proprietary CPUs, but today use large numbers of Intel x86 CPUs. This permits Unisys mainframes to run OS 2200 and/or MCP alongside Windows and Linux. Maybe that’s why nobody seems to talk about them, because they can blend in like an overgrown PC. Maybe people don’t realize their mainframe lineage.
Unisys also does a large amount of service and integration work, having found refuge in that space much like DEC and IBM as the sales of large computers fell throughout the 90s. Unisys was once a large government contractor. I recall talking to them about open positions in the 2010-2012 timeframe when I was working in government contracting. It sold much of its government contracting off to SAIC in 2020.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.