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June 2005

Watch for migration's undertow

A lot of people think that a platform's popularity determines its longevity. That might be true in a global sense, but on the local scene, you decide if something is finished at your shop by testing the waters — the underwaters of software. Application and utility flexibility and availability: That's what marks the countdown clock for many users.

PowerHouse is a good example of a product line with layers of undertow, the current below the surface that pulls down unaware swimmers. Lately, the PowerHouse users on the PowerHouse-L mailing list have asked for support to make the language friendlier to the code editors everybody loves. Those are the ones that color-code syntax. Cognos got to work on the request and provided a start on the syntax request. But it included a warning that suggests support for PowerHouse is being reined in, bit by bit. The undertow can be hard to feel at the very first. PowerHouse has versions which don't have what the vendor calls "development support." Read the product manager's reply to see if you feel that tug of the undertow.

Continue reading "Watch for migration's undertow" »

Deep Enough to Hold a Mansion

Sometimes it takes Google to plumb the vast deeps of HP 3000 heritage. I subscribe to the Google Alerts feature, one that lets you submit a phrase to find matches of news on the Web, or just Web pages. This part of Google has been in beta for months, and my results for the 3000 make it easy to see why. I submitted "HP 3000" back in January, a phrase that has turned up lots of Web pages about engine horsepower and even HP's printer line of the same name. Only a couple of Google's e-mailed news links have ever connected me to HP3000-related "news." (I recently added an alert for "HP3000" — the space in the product's name was added in the 1990s and calls up a whole other set of pages.)

But I got a relevant alert today, even though it linked to more history than news. Mystery Mansion, Adventure — these were games the 3000's deepest resource of programmers used to unwind, though you might think being away from the keyboard would produce more of a respite. Not news to a 3000 veteran, Adventureland's report on Mansion might have been news to Google's Web-bot that trawls the Internet. Those veterans usually wax nostalgic about the days when minicomputers hosted text-only adventure games. But that heritage pays off to any 3000 user — many of these veterans are still working, all while the stability and maturity of their collective efforts performs every day for customers. How long those veterans will be working, and for whom, are the questions among customers who use older code and systems.

Continue reading "Deep Enough to Hold a Mansion" »

A Patchwork Future on the Rise

HP continues to engineer patches for the HP 3000, but customers have been told that service will be curtailed when the rest of the vendor's support stops at the end of next year. Patches are a valuable improvement to 3000 ownership, but many customers look to patches only when they've got a problem they can't fix any other way. Workarounds are a more common method of HP 3000 repair.

I don't want to sell short what HP continues to do this year for the platform. It's a great thing that patches like NSSHD10A — which HP reported left beta status last week — are available to any HP customer. NSSHD10A repairs problems with Network Services on 3000s running MPE/iX 6.5. If you take a peek at the patch details on the HP Web site, you see the latest version of the patch prevents a System Abort 2259 in NSSTATUS — and about two dozen other Service Requests (bug fixes) from earlier in 6.5's lifespan. This is the patchwork that HP offered to continue when it extended its 6.5 support last year.

But companies that support 3000 customers don't see that work of patches as crucial to keeping the servers working in the decade to come.

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Give print improvements a try

HP is looking for beta test sites starting this week, companies who want to try out the new networked printing enhancements for the HP 3000. Jeff Vance posted a note on the HP 3000 newsgroup late Friday evening, as well as on the OpenMPE mailing list, asking for beta sites:

The #1 2004 SIB item -- support non-HP printers via MPE/iX network printing -- is complete and ready for beta testing. The patch ID is: MPEMXU1A.

Please, if at all possible, request this patch so that beta testing can complete in a timely manner and thus MXU1A can be placed in General Release (GR) status shortly.

The engineering is designed to make it easier to use non-HP printers with the 3000. HP's done the work by adding a new option in networked printing's configuration file.  PCL_ENABLED can be set to false, to remove all PCL sequences at the beginning and end of a spool file.  You can also control flushing of the last printed page.

HP offered an update on this work one year ago, agreeing to the engineering project. Vance is referencing the last official vote on a System Improvement Ballot for HP 3000s when he talks about #1, but keep in mind that only 223 ballots rolled in. That's one reason why there was no vote on the many requests submitted for an SIB this year. Lots of ideas on how to improve the 3000, from customers still using the system. But the desire hasn't been matched by numbers that can spring loose more engineering time from HP.

Customers have wanted this kind of flexibility for 3000 printing for a long time. That's why companies like RAC Consulting and Minisoft (reselling the RAC engineering) have been able to sell a first-rate third party package to tie printers to 3000, one with fewer blind spots than this new free patch. HP's offering won't let Windows-hosted printers participate in the 3000 network printing enhancement, for example. And you'd better be on the latest MPE/iX release to use the patch, too.

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What's the bail to escape patch jail?

There's nothing like testing to ensure the HP3000 will maintain its reputation for reliability. But the question is rising from users' lips: How much testing do we need in a transition era?

The enhancements that HP has been crafting for the 3000 are starting to dwindle in number. Part of the reduction of effort is all about a lack of testing from the users. In our June issue we outlined the state of patches stuck in HP's beta program. One of the customers we offered as an example reported back with an update on his patch testing efforts. Dave Powell is wondering what it takes to get a patch sprung from the beta-testing jail.

After correcting my report on what MM Fab does — they are a fabric and garment company, not a component maker — he gives the all-clear on a pair of CI patches to enable a user function to call another script or UDC as a function that would return a value using an enhanced CI RETURN command.

"I installed the patches in question back on April 2," he says, "and posted favorable comments about it on the 3000-L that day.

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Jumbo improvements over time

HP 3000 enhancements can travel like distant starlight: They sometimes take years to show up on customer systems. A good example is jumbo datasets for the 3000's database IMAGE (or TurboIMAGE or IMAGE/SQL, depending on how current your own name is for your system's database.) Jumbos, the 3000's best tool for supporting datasets bigger than 4GB, first surfaced out of HP's labs 10 years ago, just when the 3000 NewsWire was emerging, too. We put our news online in the months before we'd committed to print, and our report of September 1 had this to say:

HP will make the enhancement available as part of its patch system, bypassing the delay of waiting for another full release of MPE/iX. But there are already discussions from the HP 3000 community that a more thorough change will be needed before long — because 40-gigabyte datasets someday might not be large enough, either.

Why care about 10-year-old news? In the conservative timeline of 3000 management, jumbos are the distant starlight, only now becoming commonplace on 3000s. Now it looks like jumbos are finally going to get eclipsed by LargeFile datasets. HP's engineers say their alpha testing to fix a critical bug in LFDS is going well. HP expects to update the community next week.

They will need beta testers, something that's been hard to come by for HP in recent months.

Like the jumbos before them, LFDS are also going to get a slow embrace. How slowly did jumbos go into production systems? Five years after jumbos first emerged, John Burke wrote in our net.digest column " it is hard to tell about the penetration of jumbo datasets in the user community beyond users of the Amisys application." His column also offered some tips on using jumbos, even while database experts in the community continued to lobby for a way to build larger files.

Next week could mark the first time in 10 years that 3000 customers can build a dataset as big as they need. Because up to now, LFDS has been unrecommended for 3000 customers except in experimental implementations.

Continue reading "Jumbo improvements over time" »

Direct payoff, direct layoffs

HP has finally realized a solid return from its Compaq merger right here in Texas. This month HP closed on a sale of more than 462 acres of "excess" land in Northwest Houston, a chunk of real estate that was linked to a Compaq facility in that city. According to a story in the Houston Business Journal, the land will become "a new lifestyle center on the former Hewlett-Packard Co. property in far-flung northwest Houston."

Just a week earlier, the fallout of 3,000 HP layoffs trickled through the 3000 community. One engineer who'd been "affected" posted his availability on a technical mailing list. HP said earlier this year that it would be adjusting its headcount in the Enterprise Storage and Systems group during the second and third quarters, a result of intense competition. The vendor has earmarked $236 million for severance pay in the last two quarters, the kind of harsh trimming that CEO Mark Hurd has done before, at his old job at NCR.

Losing a job at HP is far from the rare thing it was 10 or 15 years ago. Back then, the vendor was so circumspect about layoffs that it used alternative words, like being excessed. The headcount for HP's 3000 operations has always been a closely-held figure, but few of us figure it to be in triple digits today. Prior HP layoffs during 2003 and back in 2001 trimmed the 3000 jobs, along with others.

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Commerce off 3000s: Off the page

Just about the same time that e-commerce supplier Ecometry rounded up its best customers, a study surfaced that shows their future efforts will be well off the page. Printed pages, that is, according to Transcontinental Publishing. The company commissioned a survey which shows the paper investment won't be increased for firms that drive their sales with 3000-based catalog operations — companies like Old Glory, Coldwater Creek or Levenger that mail tons of paper.

A hundred such companies participated in the spring survey, and almost four of every five said increasing catalog sales was their No. 1 goal. But the survey noted that "only 35% said they would invest in increasing the frequency of mailings and only 26% said they would invest to improve catalog quality."

This would indicate that Ecometry is driving in a direction its customers will follow when it purchases companies like Blue Martini, whose technology has nothing whatsover to do with catalog commerce. Whenever you're not investing in a technology, it's no longer your leading effort. Transactions from phone and paper catalogs are leading at many e-commerce sites, but future growth is in e-commerce, according to the survey.

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Keeping your update skills sharp

A seasoned HP 3000 developer reported success at updating his Series 918 HP 3000 over the weekend. That's a system still in service at hundreds of HP 3000 sites, if not thousands; the 918 was the most affordable HP 3000 ever, at least at HP's new system prices. Keven Miller's 918 needed new Processor Dependent Code to run MAPPER, the utility program the 3000 uses to give you information about your disk drives, memory, processors and co-processors. MAPPER also allows you to modify any information that you need to change.

Miller posted notes on his success in getting his 918 updated, but before we share that user report, let's take a minute to see why it matters. Back in 2003 when HP stopped selling 3000s, our net.digest editor John Burke took note of the shifting landscape and asked, "Can [HP 3000] firmware be updated without resorting to a technician? This could increasingly become a problem as we move into the out years after end-of-sales and people pick up used machines from various sources."

Miller's success echoed John's, an event he wrote up in our October, 2003 edition of net.digest. You can read that report in the archives of the NewsWire's Web site, as well as on John's first-rate resource, Now to Miller's more recent PDC report:

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Less tangled SOX for 3000s

Terry Simpkins, the IT manager at Measurement Specialties, used the HP 3000 newsgroup to announce a respite from some of the Sarbanes-Oxley strain. An SEC document at stafficreporting.htm “says the ISIT ‘General Controls’ are not automatically part of section 404 testing. It’s buried in Section F of the [document], but the key phrase is, ‘For purposes of the Section 404 assessment, the staff would not expect testing of general IT controls that do not pertain to financial reporting.’ ”

Simpkins, whose March report to us chronicled 60-hour work weeks overwhelmed with SOX audit issues, added that “If you don’t know about section 404 testing, or are not involved in your company’s SOX testing, go home tonight and be very thankful.”

Simpkins has been sharing what he's learning as he pushes his organizations, which rely on HP 3000s and MANMAN ERP software, through SOX compliance. Auditors have wanted to know how companies handle the segregation of MANMAN programming functions (testing vs. production)  to become Sarbanes-Oxley compliant. One- or two-person shops have been struggling to show auditors how this isn't a risk. Management review of high-level system manager capabilities is key, Simpkins says.

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Source code makes tomorrow like so yesterday

Sun is putting a little heat on HP this week by offering an open source program for the Solaris operating system. Open source was a rally cry during the early days after HP announced it would stop supporting its proprietary OS for the 3000, MPE/iX. (Anyone who's developed for any vendor's version of Unix will admit that these Unixen are all proprietary, in the same way that Windows is proprietary. Proprietary is not an epithet, such an honest look at software's reach.) You do an open source program to make sure your OS stays relevant and in broad use. Sun's intention is "to release as much of the existing source code as possible through the OpenSolaris project and for future development of the source to take place in the OpenSolaris community."

Although MPE/iX future development will have to take place in the third-party developer community, open source wouldn't work for the 3000 community — something most customers realized when they got honest about the size of the 3000 development base. You can't count customers to measure the potential of open source resources; you have to look for people capable of doing their own builds of software such as perl, sendmail and the like. HP's Mark Bixby has warned 3000 customers who want to homestead they better get fluent in such development, or get to know a consultant who knows his way around the make command.

But the Sun offering this week reminds the 3000 customer about opening up source, a topic HP has promised it finally weigh in on by the end of 2005. HP's been very quiet on whether MPE/iX source can ever be developed outside HP's labs. Will the announcement come at HP World, in about two months, or at the first HP Technical Forum, during September? Or will HP wait until the end of the year to deliver disappointing news, that MPE/iX is not going to gain more functionality for customers who need it?

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HP-UX gains in later results

In our June issue, just now hitting the streets, we reported that the migrating HP 3000 customers are choosing Windows as a heavy favorite transition platform. But the percentage of HP-UX sites is creeping upward since our early-June survey. On June 3, these companies didn't make up even 30 percent of the respondents who were moving. A week later, the raw totals stood like this

Windows: 31 customers
HP-UX: 23 customers
Other Unixes, including Linux, Sun & IBM: 15 customers

iSeries choices got mentioned twice, and one HP 3000 company has moved to Apple's Unix, which most of us know as OS X.

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A small step back to the old-school HP

The vendor who offers an alternative to your HP 3000 rolled back the clock a little yesterday, though not far enough to recant its flight from the 3000. But HP announced that it's taking those printer and PC units and splitting them apart, a full about-face from the Carly Fiorina strategy in January of "a bigger HP is a better HP." Now that it's got a new CEO, HP is reorganizing, back toward a business plan that recognizes not all products are alike.

HP put the news of the split-up of PCs and printers in the second paragraph of its press release that announced former PalmOne exec Todd Bradley as new head of a separate PC unit. Don't look for a full spinoff of the printer business from the rest of HP soon. You don't appoint a fellow to run a unit just to spin it off.  Duane Zitzner's work to ensure a smooth melding of PCs and printers now is just a memory. Mainstream computing press coverage — at the San Jose Mercury News as well as on CNET — has focused on the flip-flop in HP's strategy

The move looks like the first of perhaps several significant rollbacks to a style that created the HP 3000 and its marketplace. Back in those days of the 1970s, every product line from HP was not only its own division, it often operated as if it were its own company. This was the era that created the acronymn "CSY," meaning Computer SYstems Division. The HP 3000 sensibility lives on in the vendor at cubicles and desktops where virtual CSY employees (yeah, vCSY'ers, they call themselves) still spend parts of their day on 3000 engineering and planning.

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From Netbase to SQL Savvy

After creating and polishing the 3000 shadowing software Netbase, Quest Software has put a lot of its energy into managing SQL-based databases, especially the kind that are being asked to replace the HP 3000's TurboIMAGE.

Now Quest has come out with Toad for Oracle, a development and admin tool to build queries to Oracle databases. It's also got a more technical layer that lets a DBA debug SQL code, or create and modify database objects. A Flash movie (you need to have a Flash player installed in your browser) gives you a tour of Toad.

IMAGE could be complex to program, but the world of Oracle can make the 3000's database programming seem simple by comparison. Oracle is at the heart of solutions such as the Ecometry Web commerce application, so getting fluent with the SQL database might be easier with tools like Toad.

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A Bright Light Winks Out

Bruce-TobackYesterday I learned that Bruce Toback died. He was a leading light among HP 3000 experts, but it takes far more than that accomplishment to catalogue his genius. I got to know him at first when we worked together on a project in the 1980s; I edited The HP Chronicle back then, and he agreed to contribute a column on languages. What stands out much better after all these years was Bruce's sense of humor and scope of intelligence.

He and his wife Vicki founded a software company, Office Products Technology, first out of the LA area and then from Phoenix, where they relocated to start their family together. Bruce was about my age when he died, so the news of his death by heart attack was sudden and sad and of course, a little scary. For the last several years we were both members of a virtual community of HP 3000 veterans — so I got to enjoy his writing, thinking and research even more than during those few months when I was lucky enough to call him "one of my writers." He wrote more than 800 messages during the three years since I'd joined the online community. He posted thoughtful and intelligent messages on a range of subjects as vast as ice skating, digital photography, real estate transactions, Mac OS X programming, percussion instruments and their science — the list of what he was interested in seemed endless.

The tributes poured in about from the HP community during this week. People told stories about his attention to detail (what kind of light bulb contacts are used in the UK, in preparation for a presentation there) or his devotion to accuracy in education (he and Vicki took their kids down the home schooling path, went one story, because the school was teaching electromagnetism in error, and Bruce couldn't get them to correct their cirriculum.) Many of his colleagues said they wished they knew him better. Through the writing he left behind on the Internet (just type "toback" into the address field on the HP 3000 newsgroup search engine), he won't be gone completely.

His programming lies at the heart of Formation, a ROC Software product which Bruce created as a product for Tymlabs, an extraordinary HP software company here in Austin during 1980s and early 90s. He could also demonstrate a sharp wit as well as trenchant insight. From a couple of his messages:

HP engineer [about a Webcast to encourage migration]: During the program, we will discuss the value and benefits of Transitioning from the HP e3000 platform to Microsoft's .NET.

Bruce: Oh... a very short program, then.

After PFC Jessica Lynch became a media celebrity for being rescued during the Iraq invasion, then celebrated in a song:
I have to wonder if all this attention would have been lavished on, say, a PFC James Lynch. My guess is that if the rescued POW had not been a comely female of prime reproductive age, we might have learned more about the folks who actually did the rescuing.

-- Bruce (who's not saying whether he's pro- or anti-war, but who's definitely anti-coverage-of-war-as-sporting-event)

A fellow of wry humor, Bruce was a realist and optimist all at once. He wrote a fabulous Web-based summary of the 3000 newsgroup traffic for many years during the 90s for the HP user group Interex, entries often full of wit.

He kept up; just from reading his more than 800 posts in that community in the years since I joined, I find he was interested in new colorization algorithms, wrote a Mac version of the AICS QCShow player, developed a demo server for RETS (an open standard for exchanging real estate transaction) -- and yet he had squirreled away an HP Journal article on HP EGS, a 20-year-old graphics system run on the HP 3000. His last posting to the Internet noted the revival of assembly language programming.

Through it all, Bruce seemed to be having fun. He once noted a study which reported about 10 percent of all tech gifts would be damaged after the year-end holidays by enraged low-tech users, then added, "Go team!" And I could always feel a kindred spirit in his passion for the Mac's rebirth. He was compiling a list of books "at arm's reach" by HP 3000 technical community members in the weeks before his death, a great idea that was as inclusive as it was incisive. Perhaps his lesson as he left us was to keep your mind open about the relative value of past wisdom and future knowledge. He certainly displayed his gifts for both in the HP community.

He leaves behind a wife and two children, the part of his life that I suspect shone the brightest for him. He told this story on himself in a message about his courtship with Vicki:

Well, as long as we’re confessing, I did take my wife Vicki to HP CSY (or whatever it was called in January, 1978) while on our honeymoon. We had a romantic lunch in the company cafeteria, after which we picked up the full HP3000 manual set I had ordered (all 11 volumes). We then set out on a drive through the redwoods in the mountains south of Santa Clara. I drove while Vicki read selected passages from the Instruction Set and Intrinsics manuals.

N.B., for newlywed techies: I have been paying for this ever since.

For any of us in the HP 3000 community who knew him, even a little bit, we'll miss Bruce's light, always reflected in his humor.