HP scraps free-patch plan, demands support
Emulator's customers: Plentiful, says Pivital

HP's customers push back on paid patches

Users of the HP 3000 have good reason to dislike the paid-only patch policy HP is sweeping into effect next month. But while those 971 HP 3000 patches disappear into HP's walled garden, thousands more go under the same lock and key for HP's Unix, VMS and NonStop servers -- all of which HP still sells and supports.

The 3000 community sees this as a problem, but how much depends on to what extent a user relies on MPE/iX patches in operations. Some large customers still use the PATCHMAN utility written in the 1990s to update 3000s as needed.

"We download patches with the PATCHMAN script, or go to the HP website," said Ray Legault, a systems integrator at Boeing. PATCHMAN relies on the free FTP access to deliver fixes to 3000 sites. HP is shutting down all patch access except via its website, the HP ITRC, on Sept. 17.

Consultants and companies which provide support already have many of the 3000 patches in their resource bins. The entire collection is 1.27GB, according to Craig Lalley of EchoTech. The patch code itself is small.

"Hey, it all fits on a thumb drive," Lalley said today. "I have already worked out the process where the files can be uploaded to an HP 3000, whereby PATCH/iX can determine which patches are required. Sadly, all patches (for each OS) need to be uploaded. PATCHMAN was a little bit smarter and only downloaded those that were not already applied."

Whatever the workarounds these 3000 users find to stock their repair kits -- downloading for free is still possible for another three weeks and more -- the HP cutoff, which makes a support contract mandatory for using a business server, is winning no friends with its enterprise customers. Some say the patch restrictions are acting to reduce the installed base of servers HP's still struggling to sell

In one bit of luck for the 3000 community, at least its patch inventory is not going to grow any larger. A thorough download before Sept. 17 will net everything that might be useful. But the issue goes beyond 3000 users' dismay. The OpenVMS enterprise customers, who can still pay HP for patch access after Jan. 1, see paid, website-only patch access as a dead weight on their servers.

"This is a very bad decision on HP’s part," said VMS customer Robert Jordan, "and it will negatively impact our remaining small OpenVMS customers, and therefore us as well. These customers do not have software contracts; they stay at the most recent version they had when either their initial contract expired, or what came on the system, but the patches have been critical on numerous occasions."

"My personal gripe about taking away the FTP functionality is that I will have to pass the patches through some other system, wrote "The Brit," a user with "ITRC Wizard" status on HP's support discussion website, "instead of dropping them directly onto my system. One has to conclude that the rumoured 'death wish' of HP towards OpenVMS may be more than just a rumour."

HP's ITRC Forum discussions featured two separate message threads that slam the new policy, one covering HP-UX administration, the other for OpenVMS admins.

"They’re trying to retroactively change the terms of my purchase — free patches,” said one support expert who didn’t want to be quoted. “For me, I now want to nullify that purchase, which means I’ll return their hardware (at their cost for shipping), and they’ll return my money. Their ill-conceived changes alter the value proposition of buying an HP computer drastically.”

Brian Edminster, who supports the HP 3000s running the Host HMS duty-free shops in US airports, said, "HP's new slogan is 'Let's Do Amazing.' Well, consider me underwhelmed. HP's tightening the screws on patch releases, such that only paying support customers can get them anymore. 

"Not that it matters to existing 3000 users -- I'd say 'customers,' but HP's definition requires having bought a system from them recently."

The business decision that HP says "brings the company into alignment with other industry support providers" was labeled a "failed alignment" by one admin on the ITRC Forums. "That's simply a false statement and damages HP's credibility," said customer Craig A. Berry. "No other vendor we deal with has anything like it. There is only one HP badge in our entire data center: a solitary OpenVMS system. There is already a perception that HP is too difficult to deal with and OpenVMS is too different from our other systems. This just fuels that perception."

Other 3000 administrators noted that HP's announcement was "conspicuously absent of any language implying you couldn't give patches to another user; or have one computer on support and distribute the patches to 999 computers you own."

HP will be distributing a new version of the HP Software Assistant, SWA 2.75, which has been required to patch the frequent security holes that appear in HP-UX. But SWA 2.75 won't be available until after the HP patch site locks up for paid-only use, so no testing will be possible by enterprise Unix sites.

Bob Campbell of HP tried to ease the dismay of HP-UX users by explaining that "version 2.75 is not being built to be dual-mode and would not be useful if pre-released," he said on the ITRC Forum. "The delay is in part my method to verify that the new ITRC is in place. The ITRC changes are not limited to SWA or even HP-UX. I can only promise that helping everyone through this transition is our primary focus."

IBM isn't charging for its system patches, either for the 3000-like Series i, or the HP-UX competitor Series p servers. Windows systems also get patches included with the purchase of the operating environments, for any customers who want to download or keep up with patches through third-party firms.

And it's the rise of these independent support options, a trend in the 3000 community, that poses both the best remedy to the HP ploy, as well as the reason for the lockup. HP's 3000 division said in 2009 that the MPE/iX beta-test patches which never made it to General Release would be available for download during 2011, after HP's 3000 support ended. There's no apparent way to fulfill that promise in light of the new patch policy. Lalley said he's hoping users will send him the beta-test patches they've got for safe keeping; a few have already done so.

"The bottom line is that this is an effort to close off self, and third-party support," said another HP 3000 veteran of more than 25 years who still works with HP systems every day. "All it will do is speed up the migration from HP-UX and other proprietary HP platforms to Linux and Windows."