HP announces source code licensees
Newest year evokes freshest tender mercies

Drive to free MPE wraps with read-only code

After eight years of work, the 3000 community will be receiving the long-sought MPE/iX source code in 2010. Yesterday users of the computer learned from Hewlett-Packard which organizations are receiving a license to read — but not modify — source for the operating system and database that drives the HP 3000. Adager, Pivital Solutions, Allegro Consultants, Beechglen Development, Neil Harvey & Associates, Ordat, OpenMPE and Terix were named by the vendor as license holders for source.

HP isn't releasing all of the parts of MPE/iX. Some of the operating system's functions cannot be included, since independent companies licensed elements to HP like the Mentat streaming faculty or the MKS Posix shell. All of the programming that drives every HP 3000 environment, written in languages such as Modcal, SPL and other esoteric dialects, cannot be modified or extended by any of the seven source licensees.

The licenses open up the internal workings of MPE/iX and TurboIMAGE, even if they fall short of the drive launched in 2002 by OpenMPE for open source version of MPE/iX. The license for read-only access is the best that HP will offer. The application and approval process took 15 months from HP's 2008 announcement that it would review applicants. Within a few weeks the code will arrive on a DVD, considering the size of the transfer, at offices across the US, Europe, and South Africa. The next step will be to verify what HP is sending and understand the potential of those parts, a task that presents the first challenge for a licensee to make the source useful.

Documentation on the source remains an element that no party has discussed in public. During 2007, OpenMPE worked with HP to help test the ability to build MPE/iX releases, but those efforts were preliminary. HP cut off the collaboration short of OpenMPE’s goals, which were to see if an independent entity could manage to cut a fresh release of MPE/iX without HP assistance.

But even if Hewlett-Packard curtailed that experiment with independents, HP has reached into the pool of licensees in the past for help in creating and maintaining elements of MPE.

One licensee, Allegro Consultants, has performed projects for HP to create IMAGE/SQL features released over the last 10 years. When Hewlett-Packard was still making improvements to the 3000 source, such outside engineering was commonplace, but also protected under confidential disclosure agreements. Any outside contractors would obviously have documentation at hand to understand that section of the source.

Adager Corporation, whose products have been on HP's corporate price list for decades, has worked closely with HP's TurboIMAGE labs over the years to resolve data corruption failures that could impact tens of thousands of companies. The most recent corruption bug was documented first in Adager's labs, which has also worked with the vendor to test large-scale repairs to TurboIMAGE.

Many of these companies acknowledge that the source licenses may turn out to be more symbolic than ground-breaking. Technical experts in the community such as Adager and Allegro say that MPE/iX source might be useful in resolving problems with IMAGE/SQL or 3000 bugs. Nobody will know until the code is in the labs of licensees. And HP has been clear that using the source code before next year is a breach of the license agreement.

About the only action that is certain to take place is that HP will release source code this spring. News of the licensee schedule emerged after the vendor wanted to see a November NewsWire article disappear which updated the OpenMPE license funding drive.

Jennie Hou, the final e3000 business manager before HP closed up its development labs around this time last year, commented on a NewsWire blog post to add information about the release of license holder names. That Nov. 19 story updated the fundraising drive that OpenMPE is pushing to come up with the money for the license.

“HP is working with multiple third parties who wish to procure from HP the read-only source code license for MPE/iX and TurboIMAGE/XL to provide system-level technical support services,” Hou said in her comment to our article. “HP intends to publish the names of the approved licensees in the first quarter of 2010 on the www.hp.com/go/e3000 Web site.”

The balance of that message reminded 3000 owners that there are many places to procure support for an HP 3000 when HP leaves the community on Dec. 31. The source code has the potential to be an asset that those independent support providers can use — if they honor HP’s terms.

“Customers will have multiple options for MPE/iX assistance after HP exits the Worldwide Support business on December 31, 2010,” Hou stated in her comment. “Regardless of when the announcement of licensees takes place, they will not be able to use the MPE/iX source code in the delivery of system-level technical support until January 1, 2011.”

Although the fee for the license has not been leaked by any applicants, discussion at the recent e3000 Community Meet indicates it’s a five-figure expense.

It’s unclear how HP would be able to determine if any third party company was already using the read-only source code to deliver support services. In the publishing business we sometimes use “seeding” of names in a licensed use of a subscriber list — so if an issue of a publication arrives with a special name on the label  that includes a middle initial, we know who’s used it.

HP will more likely rely on the integrity of the licensees rather than actual monitoring of support solutions from the independent firms. While the corporation’s intellectual property arm HPDC is rigorous about intellectual property infringements, this kind of support solution policing would be nearly impossible without voluntary reviews of third parties’ support fixes and workarounds.

That kind of review might be contained in the terms of the license — information that HP has not revealed, and has no plans to share.

In addition to the source having no guarantee of being a useful tool, community members have raised concerns that there’s no provisions for source code licensees to share information about what they learn.

HP made the communication provisions clear when it revealed its intentions about source licenses more than a year ago. It did not factor in any coordination requirement among licensees. Making any licensee’s patches consistent among the community’s sites is up to the licensees.

“We won’t be imposing any kind of organizational structure on the community in terms of how they choose to operate,” said Mike Paivinen, an ex-HP engineer working on contract for HP on the project in 2008. “We’re going to be creating agreements between us and individual companies."