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September 26, 2011

Small emulator box raises large hopes

CharonFrontShot One HP 3000 veteran leaned over to whisper in my ear during the HP 3000 emulator demo this weekend. "I feel like I did 37 years ago," said Eric Sand, "when I saw the first HP 3000." He was talking about the public debut of a box only a little larger than your typical satellite TV receiver. The box runs MPE/iX, creating an HP 3000 for $600 worth of Intel processor, SSD disk and countless hours of patience.

The CHARON-PA/3000 emulator was demonstrated on a laptop over this weekend, too. But the smallest bit of its hardware technology comes from a USB dongle plugged into its faceplate to deliver an HPSUSAN number. Stromasys has the legal and technical ability to write those HPSUSANs onto those dongles, so long as a customer has a valid MPE/iX license. That ID is crucial to using MPE software and applications -- almost as essential as the license agreements which software vendors will need to deliver to the community if Stromasys hopes to make the CHARON a real option for the future. Whether that's a future of just a few years, because a migration isn't complete, or unlimited use in homesteading, the length of the 3000's tomorrows looked like it can change now.

But vets like Sand and a dozen others in the Cupertino Inn suite were also calling the product a game-changer for the years to come. Not everybody in room 336 was attending that evening's HP3000 Reunion celebration, but most were friends of the the computer starting decades ago. It was a suite of skeptics that soaked up the specs of this Stromasys product started in 2002 and revived three years ago.

HP's emulator license fee for transferring MPE/iX to the CHARON is almost as high as the cost of that hardware, but it's still inexpensive compared to the product's price scope. The fee is $500. The emulator could run from $10,000 to more than $100,000 if Stromasys follows price points for its Alpha and VAX emulator product line. Even at that level, the CHARON is cheap enough to land in 3000 shops within 12 months.

A 1.0 release will go on sale in January, and CTO Robert Boers said that even if the community takes a wait and see approach, it will be fine with him. The list of items to complete is still extensive in order to make the emulator a reality.

  1. Add Ethernet card support (works already with PA RISC Linux)
  2. Add console command interface, auto-reboots, ^B (escape to console) etc.
  3. Add CHARON configuration manager
  4. Finalize floating point unit support (a few performance tweaks)
  5. CPU performance: P0.0 → P1.0 (Boot time: P0.0 ~ 60% of e3000-A400 hardware)
  6. Virtual console terminal (replace putty/xqhpterm, both are inadequate)
  7. MTD utility (tape ↔ tape image) for Linux
  8. CHARON product installer
  9. RTC precision (now about 1-2% faster than real time)
  10. Proper handling of non-standard disk image sizes
  11. QA on specific hardware configurations and VMware ESX 4.1

However, the view in the prototype X11 terminal window looked like a real HP 3000 console. Craig Lalley, who's been helping Stromasys polish the product into debut mode, ran the system through diagnostics commands and even launched HP Glance to measure performance.

A 1.1 release of CHARON-PA/3000 was promised for the end of May, one that will run four times faster than the initial release. The company will be gathering up interested customers and software suppliers for a serious field test period over the next three-plus months.

The most interesting moment of the two hours of demonstrations and Q&As with Moscow-based developer Igor Abramov, Skyped in to answer questions? It might have been Boers' philosophy, expressed as a religion, that hardware should never get in the way of any legacy environment again. Virtualization can keep an OS like MPE alive as long as there is a customer need for using apps that are proven and extensible. So long as a vendor will let go of its OS property -- and HP has done this in a way Boers said the corporation cannot take back -- he believes you can eliminate the releases and limits of physical hardware that's been needed for a workhorse like the HP 3000.

"You know all about Moore's principle that performance of hardware doubles every 18 months," he told the suite of 3000 experts. "So why not let a computer do more than linear programs? Why not build a mathematical model of the underlying hardware, so you can discard the hardware itself?"

Stromasys started in 1998 with this kind of engineering for Digital, then started a "midnight project" to create an HP 3000 in 2002 when HP "figured they might be able to push you to Unix by terminating your old platform. Usually those things don't work that way. But large corporations have another view of their power. And if it doesn't work out, typically the CEO leaves."

Those words were spoken just days after HP's CEO had departed with a $25 million parachute and its strategy in tatters. HP's 3000 exit plan might have been the first large mistake it made in a 10-year series of miscalculations. But the virtual HP 3000 unveiled on the Reunion weekend could remake the future of the server's lifespan. A USB dongle plugged into a gaming PC that runs Linux and atop that, the CHARON emulator, describes a product chain that can be controlled by customers, rather than a large corporation which changes CEOs even more often than enterprise strategies and hardware.

11:08 AM in Homesteading, Migration | Permalink

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