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Strobe sidelines its 3000 emulator work

A decline in the amount of non-3000 business at emulator vendor Strobe Data has pushed the company's PA-RISC system emulation project to the sidelines, reports Strobe's Alan Tibbetts.

Strobe Logo The vendor was among three whose hats were in the ring to create a solution that would permit non-3000 computers to run MPE/iX applications and software. HP has made an MPE/iX emulation license available, but none of the emulator vendors has released the rest of the solution.

Allegro Consultants was mentioned in the early talks about emulation, but president Steve Cooper long ago put rumors of an Allegro-branded product to rest. Over the past five years Allegro has been mentioned as a partner in a project that Strobe would lead, since Allegro boasts one of the best stables of PA-RISC experts in the world.

Strobe's business revolves around emulating Digital minicomputers and the HP 1000 mini, systems which are used to control processes in real-time computing. The current economic lull -- HP was still reporting declines in all of its businesses except services -- has set the 3000/PA-RISC emulation work onto Strobe's back burner.

"We are just trying to survive the lull in government orders right now," Tibbetts said. "The trouble is that the sales of our [Digital] PDP-11 line are down. The PDP-11s became unreliable more quickly and we have sold a bunch of them in the past, but the easy ones have already been captured."

Stromasys, the emulator vendor whose labs are in Europe with sales offices around the world, announced this summer that it was putting its PA-RISC emulation solution into alpha testing this fall. The Stromasys product won't rely on hardware components, going to an all-software solution that provides cross-platform virtualization. The emulator will permit MPE/iX to boot up and run on Intel's Xeon-x86 processor family as well as AMD's PC chips.

Tibbetts said that Strobe has leaned itself up in order to weather the lull and it continues to meet with customers to secure new emulator sales in the 1000 and PDP markets. He added that he's traveling to New York State this week to install an emulation product at BAE Systems, which is testing US military jet engines using 1985-era minicomputers.

The sidetracking of emulator work at Strobe can be viewed in more than one perspective. HP 3000 community members have long wondered if competing emulator solutions could survive in the MPE/iX marketplace. The market has a strong inventory of used hardware, much of which could be considered an upgrade for owners of older 3000s. Companies have left the market which might have been emulator customers, had HP made technology licensing available sooner to the vendors' R&D teams.

But Strobe's Willard West, who was the first to announce an emulator product in 2002, has said his market has an extraordinarily long lifecycle. Just because a company didn't need an emulator in 2009 does not mean the requirement won't arise four years later.

The sales cycle of an emulator also depends on the durability of the computers being emulated, Tibbetts added. "The HP 1000s have remained reliable longer than the PDPs -- which is good for the owners of  HP 1000 systems, but that leaves us with a slump right now. The good news for us is that even old-style HP quality is not enough to keep disc drives running forever."

Tibbetts said that the 3000 emulator project, which would leverage some of the technology the company uses in its Kestrel HP 1000 emulator, hasn't been canceled at Strobe. The company competes with Stromasys in the PDP marketplace, where Strobe has been serving customers who saw system vendors give up on minicomputers long ago.

"In the minicomputer marketplace, DEC and Data General and HP fought valiantly for quite a few years," Tibbetts said. "Then they all just kind of went away, and here we are, supplying a solution to the people that bought into the minicomputers at the time."

A persistent viewpoint, expressed by 3000 owners who are migrating, asserts that emulators will never make a substantial difference to the lifespan of the MPE/iX marketplace. While Strobe and Stromasys don't believe their products will alter the end-date of minicomputer use, their solutions give companies and governments a way to contain costs and stay in command.

A decision to fly Kiowa helicopters another five years in the US military means that minicomputer test systems must stay online that much longer, Tibbetts pointed out. Projects to migrate to alternative solutions in the real-time computing world can deliver failure consistently.

"In the past they have tried to go to other solutions," he said of real-time system owners. "They've found that the realities are that minicomputers just worked differently than PCs. I've seen lots of money flushed down holes trying to get a PC to do what a minicomputer had done."

The system distinctions for HP 3000s versus PCs are not as pronounced, he added. While that makes the emulation's tech prospects healthier, the marketplace could be tougher than in the real-time markets. "What makes it a little scary in thinking about the 3000 [emulation] is that you don't have that same deep penetration of technology," he said. "You don't have your tentacles deep into the customer's processes the way the real-time system does."

The technical promise is profound, however. Tibbetts said that he's going to BAE to upgrade an HP 1000 that had no provision for standards-based network connections. A simple serial port on the computer will be transformed into a port for telnet protocol -- the kind of quantum leap that a 3000 hardware cross-platform virtualizer could deliver five years from now to hit a moving technology target.