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Emulator history assists in HP licensing

Members of the HP 3000 community have doubted any hardware emulator would ever surface, often pointing to HP's reluctance to make a license possible. More than five years elapsed between HP's initial promise of a virtual MPE/iX license for PC-based servers and the mechanism of right-to-use licensing. Even when HP issued an FAQ on the emulator, users didn't believe the concept could pass HP's legal muster.

"HP has demonstrated an intractable institutional resistance to admitting that the HP 3000 was a viable platform," said James Byrne, IT manager at 3000 shop Harte-Lyne. "This cannot but continue to have a baleful influence on efforts at cooperation with HP by those producing and intending to use said (non-extant) emulators."

Harte-Lyne was using a pair of Series 918 3000s when Byrne cast doubt on an emulator's future. Other long-time advocates of the 3000 described the concept as "an emulator that will never happen," according to Joe Dolliver, owner of consultancy e3k Solutions.

But early this year Dolliver also said he had "two part-time 3000 clients that have no Plan B, and I will be supporting them for several years to come." lf licensing can be arranged to allow third-party tools to run in emulation, such clients could find a Plan B in an emulator.

"If an emulator existed and cost less than the hardware support contract for our 3000," said Edward Berner of Yosemite Community College, "then I could save money and reclaim some floor space at the same time."

What's been key to keeping the dream alive is vendors' history with HP working on emulation. In addition to the HP 1000 experience from Strobe Data's emulator product, there's been others. Robert Boers, the CEO of Stromasys who recently said the company has worked out its licensing plans regarding MPE/iX, reports that doubt and skepticism have followed emulator sales ever since his firm started selling them for the Digital VMS market.

"That's one of the problems that we have struggled with for years," Boers said. "When you talk to people they say, 'It can't be done. It's too good to be true.' We've had to pull out our Intel laptop and show them that VMS is running on it."

Technical hurdles are a serious consideration, but few in the 3000 community doubted that an emulator was an engineering impossibility. "It's basically a mathematical model of the hardware," Boers said of his product. "The Gartner Group now has a name for it, cross-platform virtualization." His company has made its bones with a VAX-Alpha emulator that he says is so accurate "you can run [VAX] hardware diagnostics on it."

That kind of technical exactitude will be needed to ensure elements such as TurboIMAGE continue to operate as applications expect. Boers said of his product, "Since we re-create an abstraction layer of the hardware, I wouldn't expect anything not to run. There is no fundamental difference except that some of the components -- normally the IO -- will run a lot faster."

The performance of the emulator will be determined by the host hardware, which Boers says is typically driven by Intel or AMD 64-bit processors. HP has not mandated that the hosting hardware carry an HP label to be eligible for a license. Several technical experts in the community say there's no way to test for the presence of an HP PC on startup. That kind of test took place in 3000 hardware to ensure MPE/iX wouldn't boot on another HP PA-RISC server.

There's many a potential slip between lip and cup remaining for any 3000 hardware emulator. Performance might be an issue, but the accelerating power curve of Intel and AMD systems could well resolve that issue over the next year. HP's licensing intentions will be tested, too, once Stromasys attempts to sell the product -- since the third party is a player in the MPE/iX licensing process. The HP Right to Use (RTU) license controls the operation of MPE/iX on non-3000 hardware. From the FAQ of early this spring:

An MPE/iX license can be transferred from an existing HP e3000 system to an emulator, using the  current Software License Transfer (SLT) process. A customer needing additional MPE/iX licenses will be able to purchase an MPE/iX RTU license through the AD377A product in conjunction with an emulator product through the end of 2010.

HP's got a mechanism to sell additional licenses for HP 3000 implementations -- virtual 3000s -- to a customer who's already got a 3000 running. That AD377A product has seen its price drop since it was first introduced in 2008. For some customers, the cost of adding 3000 licenses could make for a better Plan B than no plan at all.

"So this emulator would act as a virtual HP 3000, and the OS and apps would actually live on a 21st century piece of hardware?," asked John Stevens of Take Care of IT. "I have to think that this would have a market. If the price (and quality of implementation) is less that than of a true migration, there’s your answer."

Customers who would rather be migrated could even comprise some of the emulator user base. "Sorrowfully, I might have to use an emulator," said Paula Brinson, the Datacenter Operations Manager for Hampton Roads Sanitation District. "The legacy system is getting expensive due to floor space costs. Maintenance is with third parties now, but is still a fairly significant expense, and I have cancelled as many software contracts as I can and still operate. So emulation may be the way to go."