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Is Forever 20 more years?

OpenVMS got all the breaks back in 2000. The operating system has been around since 1977, just a few years younger than the HP 3000. But at the turn of this century Compaq decided to bring VMS into the Open realm, re-engineering the OS for the upcoming and then-much-derided HP Itanium architecture.

It was so early in the Itanium game that the servers running the architecture were several laps behind Alpha processors (on the Digital side, owned by Compaq) as well as the PA-RISC systems (powering the HP 3000s and HP-UX servers). None of that mattered to the Digitial brain trust. They could see the advantage in getting their customers a new architecture for VMS to run on. That's what you do for an OS that at the time was 23 years old.

MPE was nearing its 30th year, if you count the aborted release of 1972 which ran for just hours at a time. HP, which created Itanium along with Intel, considered making MPE work on the newest computer architecture. But at the time, the VMS community had something that MPE's customers did not: About 10 times as many sites.

Critical mass, the tipping point for computer vendor business decisions, did not spark HP to proceed with the tough engineering to get a new vessel for an OS nearing age 30. Digital did make the leap, than found itself acquired by HP within a year or so. (The irony was rich, if you were around long enough to recall the wars between DEC and HP in the 1980s. Hewlett-Packard was struggling to get out of the 16-bit processor family with something called RISC. But it was still a few years away. DEC crowed, "Digital Has It Now." Fifteen years later, Digital had it again, while HP didn't give Itanium to MPE.)

Now, an article in Information Week celebrates the 30th anniversary of the VMS operating system, adding that "Hardly anyone noticed."

Thousands of VMS fanatics noticed, but a group much smaller than the Unix devotees or the Windows warriors. Perhaps hundreds in the MPE and HP 3000 community took note, if only because that 30-year celebration, as the former SIG-Sysman chair Scott Hirsh noted, "coulda been the HP 3000." At the least, because the 3000 has 20 more years left in it, until the CALENDAR intrinsic rolls over in 2027 and quits working.

But the HP 3000 isn't dead, or even lagging behind OpenVMS in longevity for now. HP has not stopped supporting your operating system. The current HP contract runs through 2010. HP will not confirm that's the end of the line, either.

The Information Week article talks about Amazon, the Deutsche Borse stock exchange in Frankfurt, and train systems in Ireland running on OpenVMS. Well, how about the largest ticketless air carrier in the world, Southwest Airlines?  Customers in your community can point to some pretty large sites still running an OS on a server that hasn't been sold in four years. Let's see OpenVMS manage that.

HP made a mistake — although it might have been grounded in costly engineering challenges — by not porting MPE/iX to Itanium. The company made an even bigger blunder, in goodwill, by withholding that decision until more than a year later, in 2001. I had one partner tell me, just weeks before the November 2001 announcement that HP was exiting the 3000 biz, that it didn't surprise him.

"They stopped talking about getting MPE onto Itanium," he said. "What else could we conclude but that the 3000 was dropping out of HP's lineup, sooner than later?"

After 30 years, the Infoworld article asks, can OpenVMS go on forever? After all, HP killed off the Alpha hardware that VMS was re-tooled to run on. The wrap up of the article sounds familiar to the 3000 user who can't justify a migration yet off the 3000.  The VMS fellows — whose meetings at HP Tech Forum sound just like the old Interex SIG MPE gatherings, full of worry about HP's long-term interest — say they will move only when something better comes along.

We add that they'll move when something breaks down which cannot be fixed by a community of 400,000 customers. That reminds me of the repair and rejuventation cabilities of the 3000 community, less than 5 percent of the size of OpenVMS, but determined to get all they can out of their investment in Hewlett-Packard. What is forever in computer years, anyway?

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