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January 11, 2012

HP's 3000 software practice once wide open

HPWebOSOver the past month, HP has released the source code for WebOS into the open source community (or at least announced its plan to do so). It's been called a watershed event for open source -- the first commercial mobile OS ever nudged onto the homebrew free software shelves. But software was once a passion at HP that invited much more design from users than software gets today. Instead of rising on the energy of volunteers after its lifespan, software once grew up on the power of the user experience. The HP 3000 used a different model than the built-inside, respond to the outside modification requests. One of its best examples was the creation of Transact, a reporting and language solution still working at some sites today.

TransactCOBOLDavid Dummer created Transact, software that became a part of HP's Rapid family of products. In that era of advanced productivity for programming, Rapid was Hewlett-Packard's entry. But HP bought Transact and Rapid from Dummer, a deal which gave him the rights to re-create it based on direct input from users. When this project rippled through HP 30 years ago, those users in a classroom were programmers who worked with many languages. "It was like having 35 design engineers in the room," said one ex-HP developer who shaped the product.

Over 16 days of meetings, these programmers discussed each feature in Transact. Dummer wouldn't take lunch, but go off and code up "some of the more simple changes" and bring them back to the users in the class. After-lunch and then overnight coding and tests produced a period "when the product was completely re-invented, and now feature rich enough to support most best practices that we all used to code by hand."

We're not talking about an era of worldwide networks or change management repositories. (HP once operated a repository for the 3000 version of GNU C++ source, hosted on the Invent3k public development server. That was 27 years after Transact grew its robust features in a 16-day open development cycle.) Thanks to the open input on design, the dynamic data handling in Transact was built well enough that it served on 3000s for decades. Dummer went on to create DataExpress, the founding product for MB Foster's UDA Central. He wrapped up his 3000 career consulting on the 34-server Washington state community college migration to HP-UX. Besides using open input to create Transact, Dummer developed technology to move Transact apps to Unix or Linux.

And you can make a case for the length of the lifespan of Transact  -- software that's going onward into Unix and Linux -- resulting from the open design that happened in that classroom.

In 2003 ScreenJet's Alan Yeo brought Dummer out of semi-retirement to work on migration solutions for Transact. As Dummer told us in 2010, he developed a library of Transact functions written in a system development language and callable from a COBOL host program.

These functions manage the Transact stack handling and data access and map the results back into the static COBOL working storage. "As development proceeded it became apparent that to migrate Transact this library was going to have to do most of heavy work and that COBOL would provide the shell and procedural logic," Dummer said.

Now ScreenJet has a complete replacement for Transact, TransAction, that provides a dictionary and compiler to produce the host code to drive the function library. Transact users like those Washington colleges can move applications to Unix or Linux and continue to develop and maintain in the Transact language. 

Dummer was fortunate enough to have been given free reign to enhance the original Transact as he was shown by users, employing his own development methods until a production release. That's old-school open source. What a pleasure to know that an HP 3000 product has benefitted from HP keeping an open mind about software -- three decades before WebOS gained its open source wings.

06:52 PM in History, Migration, News Outta HP | Permalink

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