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HP's other OS gets lawsuit defense v. Oracle

This time around, HP is not taking any chances with the market in its business operating systems. Hewlett-Packard filed a suit this week asking the courts to make Oracle continue to support the Integrity/Itanium servers -- the only home for HP-UX. Oracle is laughing off the lawsuit, but the move is a serious extra step to keep a proprietary OS viable for HP's customers. The battle isn't being reported as a vote on HP-UX, because a few other OS's run on Itanium. However, Itanium is the only platform that runs HP's Unix. If you manage with an eye on the OS, Oracle wants fewer HP-UX servers to compete with its Sun systems.

HPUXGlory The fortunes of HP-UX have taken a slide among customers since Windows gained enterprise status. Compared to the likes of MPE/iX, Windows Server still can't match included features such as batch job services. But Windows has become the popular choice among migration-bound 3000 companies. The reports of the past -- from an Open Systems Today article (left, click for detail) that I wrote in 1994 -- described "brisk sales providing market momentum, so HP can count on getting its technology approved in a way it couldn't five years ago, when it introduced NewWave architecture."

My, how 17 years can change things for a rising star like Unix. This spring's Oracle promise of no further HP-UX support for the flagship database or Oracle apps will chill the OS futures, something HP is addressing with its lawsuit.

HP said that it believes "Oracle’s March 22 statement to discontinue all future software development on the Itanium platform violates legally binding commitments Oracle has made to HP and the more than 140,000 shared HP-Oracle customers. Further, we believe that this is an unlawful attempt to force customers from HP Itanium platforms to Oracle’s own platforms."

HP 3000 users could point to legally binding commitments at the end of 2001, too. But any lawsuit would have met a tough defense from HP, and the customers really didn't want to force a relationship to continue. As a last resort, HP has abandoned the idea of working out something with the partner selling the majority of HP-UX databases. The problem is those robust HP-UX sales are a thing of the past -- and Oracle wants its own Sun servers selling instead of the Integrity boxes. Like NewWave, Itanium is an architecture that Oracle says never caught on.

When I wrote that Open Systems Today article, Itanium was just being announced as a joint venture between Intel and HP. HP's Unix was on a roll, cannibalizing HP 3000 systems at such a pace that HP's 3000 division executives were asking Smith-Gardner to drop its MPE/iX support in the same way that Oracle is dumping its development for HP-UX.

Smith-Gardner resisted the HP request and sold hundreds of companies its Ecometry e-commerce package in the five years that followed. But Smith-Gardner was simply reselling HP's enterprise 3000 servers, so moving to another platform wouldn't boost their business, they reckoned. At least not enough to justify the extra development to create a Unix version of the app they would soon call Ecometry.

So HP asked a vendor to drop MPE/iX development, and it has also dropped development for that same OS in the 16 years that preceded Oracle exit announcement from HP's Unix. Partners who want to leave do so, even though legal action might hold them a little longer. Oracle is no more motivated to do HP's bidding in the suit than Smith-Gardner was to exit MPE -- or HP was to reinstate its MPE/iX futures in 2001.

Oracle said in a statement that responded to this week's HP lawsuit:

It just takes a few minutes to read the early drafts of the agreement to prove that HP’s claim is not true. What is true is that HP explicitly asked Oracle to guarantee continued support for Itanium; but Oracle refused, and HP’s Itanium support guarantee wording was deleted from the final signed agreement.

It is interesting, however, that way back in September of 2010, HP asked Oracle for a long-term commitment to support Itanium. At that time Oracle did not know that there was a plan already in place to end Itanium’s life. Oracle did not learn about that plan until six months later, in March 2011. We believe that HP specifically asked Oracle to guarantee long-term support for Itanium in the September of 2010 agreement because HP already knew all about Intel’s plans to discontinue Itanium, and HP was concerned about what would happen when Oracle found out about that plan.

What we know for certain is that Ray Lane and HP’s current board members and Leo Apotheker and HP’s current management team now know full well that Intel has plans in place to end-of-life of the Itanium microprocessor.

That language has an uncanny echo in its tone. HP was just as certain in 2001 about the imminent end-of-life for the HP 3000 ecosystem. The lawsuit shows that an alternative OS -- even one with a roadmap extending to 2017 -- is vulnerable to market share analysis. No matter how HP sees it, many of its customers consider their operating environment to be Oracle first, and the OS second. Like the Other White Meat of pork, the Other Enterprise OS of HP-UX may remain tasty to some partners. But a lawsuit won't keep the partners' fryers hot for more HP-UX development, even if HP wins its suit. There was a time, in 2001, when slow-growth meant an HP product line was going away.

The outcome of the lawsuit could ring a nasty warning bell for HP's future of HP-UX. If the OS loses the ability to host Oracle's databases, it will be relegated to an application-only niche for enterprises which rely on Oracle. They'll move their Oracle databases to Windows Server or Linux boxes. HP sells the ProLiant line for this sort of thing, so HP will continue to be in the running for hardware sales to Oracle customers.

But when an enterprise is considering a move away from the HP 3000, it looks at the lifespan of its target OS. Losing its largest partner can't be good for the health of HP-UX. While companies are moving their databases to separate servers, they might just lose their passion for HP's Unix while facing a migration. That's what happened to HP in more than half of the migrations from MPE so far, according to community vendors.