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July 20, 2012

Apache helped 3000s live to serve

In a July of 15 years ago, the HP 3000 was struggling for Web relevance. Since it was built as a general purpose computer, the 3000 and its operating system were expected to deliver any service which a business required. Newer elements of the IT landscape by 1997 included serving up websites, something which Unix and Windows NT competitors were handling nicely.

HP thought it had a solution to a requirement which many customers didn't even acknowledge. The Internet was becoming popular, and serving web pages was a novel means of delivering data. The 3000 had been recently supplied with standards-based email through third parties, most notably 3k Associates. But Web services were still in flux in 1997. The first choice for a third party MPE/iX-ready web server pulled out just before its product could get inserted into 3000 IT.

In the dog days of that summer, I fumed over the initial HP response to Open Market's web exit. "One of the first thoughts this division had about losing its Web server solution amounted to 'we can always let NT do it using the 3000's data.' That idea deserves to fall out from heatstroke, and quickly."

The product segment was so novel that HP had an Internet Product Manager for the 3000 (CSY) division. "We're as disappointed as anyone," Daren Connor said. HP had partnered with a company that decided to drop the product HP had ported to MPE/iX. Open Market left the 3000 with a sour aftertaste to two years of negotiations and engineering. Two years was a long period to fall behind in the Web derby while the Internet bloomed.

HP appears to be as surprised as anyone. CSY's spring promotion directly preceded Open Market's notice to HP that it was dropping the software which HP just placed in customers' hands. While HP is the primary support contact for the product, it relies on Open Market to resolve more complex support issues. CSY also looks to Open Market to engineer enhancements to the product.

There was an open solution waiting for the 3000's Internet dilemma. HP had not pinned its enterprise hopes on web services. Sun was stealing that march, but open source software would arrive to bridge the gap. Apache rode in on the steed of a savvy customer who ported it for free. HP eventually hired Mark Bixby to port the 3000 into a future where it was called the e3000. It just took one more feint at a commercial server that didn't plug into the 3000.

The open-source Apache had open hosting options, however. You could easily install it on a cast-off PC or a low-powered Unix workstation -- computers which didn't hold high-rent corporate data stores like the 3000 did. The 3000 could run Apache, once its port was completed. But HP was believing in other platforms as general purpose tools. As sexy as Internet services looked, by sprucing up the 3000's aging attire, 1997 customers wanted to clothe lesser systems with those togs.

Connor said he has been contacting the customers who have been waiting for the Secure Web Server. He also has an idea that many HP 3000 sites who are serious about using the Web with their 3000s are willing to let the server reside on another platform integrated with the HP 3000. 

"It was pretty clear to me that the majority of folks out there who were doing more than playing around with the Web were heading toward a front-end box being their Web server and incorporating the 3000 as a back-end server database," Connor said.

Open Market was important because it worked in the 3000's Posix namespace -- the most standardized element of a server that was just gaining credibility as an open system.

It felt important during that July to keep any more 3000 computing tasks from eroding into the waves of Windows NT. The 3000 was hosting some websites as a result of a third-party product, QWEBS. That MPE-only software sold for under $500, but its abilities were a subset of a Posix-based server.

QWEBS, built by K-12 app vendor QSS, was the only commercially-supported Web server for HP 3000s. Commercial support became an essential in those early days of Web services. Apache had a great reputation but needed vendors to adopt and adapt it for traditional support levels. One server based on Apache, Stronghold, was carrying then-new SSL security. Alas, Stronghold only ran on Unix.

HP recovered well by the time the '97 HP World conference convened a month later in Chicago. General manager Harry Sterling announced a deal to bring the Netscape FastTrack web server to MPE, sometime in 1998. The vendor demoed FastTrack by summer of '98. But the momentum of serving websites through commodity hosts like PCs was too great to resist. FastTrack never got an MPE foothold either at Netscape or in the 3000's community.

Netscape had a 90 percent share of browsers at the time, but any customers savvy enough to integrate their 3000s closely with web services were choosing Apache/iX, ported by a systems administrator in a California community college enterprise. More than six months before FastTrack was even expected for release, Mark Bixby was rolling out a 1.3 beta version of Apache that ran on all of HP's enterprise platforms. It lacked security features HP promised for FastTrack, however.

HP's job was to add that security. Given one more year, HP would embrace Apache as its official 3000 webserver. The computer had just celebrated its 25th birthday. We wanted HP to "create a resource working for the company that won't decide Web server business isn't lucrative enough. Secure web servers can be important at first, and lucrative later. Excuse-me offers of leveraging other platforms don't help CSY's future -- and it doesn't help CSY's customers much, either."

Bixby became that 3000 resource once he joined the labs in HP's Internet and Interoperability 3000 unit. Bixby built that first Apache on his 3000 because "we had all of our student data on the 3000, and the Internet was getting more popular." To acknowledge and recall a time when the Internet wasn't like electricity in our lives, you'd have to admit the 3000 has been working throughout major changes in computing. Open Market and FastTrack weren't firm enough or fast enough to strike what may have been a good spark for new 3000s -- during an era when HP was genuinely trying to sell them.

10:48 AM in History, Homesteading | Permalink

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