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OpenVMS survives, but will it thrive?

When HP canceled its 3000 futures, the company was still acquiring tomorrows for Digital's OpenVMS. The two communities were similar in nature but wildly different in size. HP 3000 installations never reached 100,000 servers, and had declined to under 50,000 by 2001. OpenVMS could count more than 400,000 systems running worldwide that year. These numbers decided much of the future for the two multipurpose computer systems.

But each of these environments runs an OS built by a vendor. MPE's nuances made porting it to Itanium a longer shot to pay back the investment. OpenVMS was the darling of the Digital customer base, so cutting it some slack (in engineering time) to earn Itanium status also earned HP goodwill with Digital's customers. After all, they'd already been acquired in the late '90s by Compaq.

News broke this week about changes to the OpenVMS leadership at Hewlett-Packard. Sue Skonetski, manager of engineering programs for the OpenVMS software engineering group, will be "pursuing new opportunities." She's leaving HP after 15 years as the main advocate of the OpenVMS platform, but her tenure with VMS goes back to Digital founder Ken Olson's days. Imagine a GM like Harry Sterling departing the 3000 world and you get an idea of what OpenVMS is losing.

HP replaces Skonetski with Sujatha Ramani, an HP manager of 11 years "who will assume Sue's
responsibilities including Technical Customer Programs and Communications." HP businesses like OpenVMS have gotten replacements like Sujatha in the past, engineers who earned MBAs but arrived with experience in areas like printers and PCs — not the legacy of work in an environment designed before they graduated grammar school.

The OpenVMS community events in 2008 would remind a 3000 user of any MPE meeting 10 years earlier. Customers worry about their share of HP's attention, while the OS lags behind other HP products in adoption of new technology. OpenVMS now has an 8.3-H1 version to run with the Montvale generation of Itanium chips, and the 8.4 version is likely to be a full year behind HP's support for the power-smart Tukwila generation. (Intel is promising a mid-2009 Tukwila rollout, while 8.4 is coming in mid-2010).

3000 community sources have debated whether Skonetski's departure signals the end of the OpenVMS era, or more accurately, how soon that finale will arrive. A similar advocate exists for HP's Unix community. Sometimes there's no one left in a management tree with the same tenure to assume an evangelist's post. While HP engineering may not take a ding in the OpenVMS shift, this proprietary solution is losing someone to champion it from a perspective of growing up alongside the customers. At least the 3000 never had to weather that kind of separation: from Sterling to Winston Prather to Dave Wilde and finally to Jennie Hou, all had two decades and more of MPE in their blood.

OpenVMS veterans who post to the equivalent of the 3000 mailing list were skeptical and worried about the changes to their platform's top brass. That's the nature of a mailing list poster, someone who's often concerned about any changes the vendor unveils with a bland letter. But while a 3000 shop is considering whether HP's Unix is a safe haven for a migration, the customer would do well to see how OpenVMS fares in HP's plans over the next decade. It remains to be seen if HP learned anything from its disengagement with the 3000 community.