Ritchie's rich legacy: Unix both vital, hated
Frequently Asked Questions on the Emulator

Fresh CEO carries HP rebound hopes again

WhitmanMeg Whitman took the HP CEO job last month with one similar bit of baggage as HP's last three ousted CEOs. Users hope she can rescue some part of HP's enterprise business that's in jeopardy. Her alternative is to unleash HP to spend R&D money to build a brighter future for Unix and VMS operating systems.

Carly Fiorina wasn't any help to the HP 3000 enterprise business, leading a "it grows or it goes" death march that felled several enterprise product lines. But HP had hired her to rescue a PC business falling further behind Dell by every quarter. Fiorina arranged to have HP swallow Compaq whole, at a cost of $25 billion.

Mark Hurd arrived in 2005 bearing the faint hopes that he'd see fresh opportunity in the exit-announced 3000 business. During that spring some customers dreamed HP would roll back its decision about MPE. Nothing got rolled back except HP's R&D, while the commas of multi-billion-dollar acquisitions rolled ever further to the left.

Just-fired CEO Leo Apotheker arrived with hopes that HP might become relevant in software, adding a dimension to the world's No. 1 computer company to match Oracle or IBM. Apotheker seemed to inflame Oracle by taking the job after leading SAP, a chief rival. Buying Autonomy for $10 billion will be Apotheker's legacy to serve up HP's Software as a Service hopes.

That brings us to Whitman, whose ascent from boardroom seat to CEO's hot seat sparked some hot hopes at this fall's OpenVMS Boot Camp. Those enterprise acolytes who use HP's other Itanium operating system hope Whitman can get Oracle to recant its stance to kill Itanium development of Oracle's database and apps. Intel insists Itanium has a roadmap to the end of this decade, but Oracle hoots at this forecast. This would be the first time that a new CEO at HP -- the fourth in 12 years -- needed to change an outside vendor's view of HP's enterprise future. She could do that, or give HP-UX and VMS a breath of life on Intel's other architecture, the one which Oracle supports gladly.

Whitman certainly did some deals with vendors and partners outside eBay during her tenure there as founding CEO. There really was nothing at eBay but its servers, developers and software, since all its inventory, distribution and manufacturing happened outside the company's realm. Whitman led a company that grew from 30 employees and $4 million in annual revenue to more than 15,000 employees and $8 billion from 1998-2007.

Whitman's team took over PayPal in 2002, one of the biggest relationships the company ever made with continued success. Her lowest point might have been to acquire Skype for more than $4 billion, then sell it off to Microsoft for about one-third less. She's worked on the boards of Dreamworks, Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble and then HP. The Financial Times named her as one of the 50 faces that shaped the previous decade.

Now HP's Unix and VMS customers need Whitman's shaping again. The customers who use HP's proprietary Integrity servers need Whitman to walk back Oracle's Larry Ellison from his stance that the HP Itanium architecture is on a deathbed. Just after that VMS Boot Camp, Connect user group's chief marketing officer Nina Buik spoke to a reporter at eWeek about the prospects for such a rescue of the relationship. "Everyone I've spoken with is optimistic that with Meg's experience and proven communications skills, we can change this direction," Buik said in an interview.

HP has leveled the guns of a lawsuit, flogged Oracle's intentions in the press, and encouraged an uprising from the user group in reply to Oracle's claims that Itanium is a goner. But Whitman's a fresh face in the fracas, so hope can live another day. The OpenVMS users, who make up the deepest heartland of the Connect user base, can only see one other place to run Oracle databases if the software falls out of their OS camp -- Xeon-based servers like ProLiants or Dells. Like the 3000 target environment HP-UX, VMS only has Itanium as a host system today. Buik said running VMS on a ProLiant or Dell server is a non-starter for this HP enterprise community.

"I think that the OpenVMS customer would answer, 'OpenVMS does not run on a ProLiant or Dell,' " Buik said. At the same time the Boot Camp heard about the Whitman hopes, it also got a primer on Mimer, a Swedish database that specializes in mobile deployments and expedited migrations away from Oracle.

"The Mimer option is one that OpenVMS customers can evaluate and explore viability. It would depend on how the Oracle database is being used," Buik said. "There are tools for converting stored procedures, validating SQL and verifying that the data model will work in a Mimer system. According to Mimer, they also offer competitive upgrades. At the end of the day, it's viability and Total Cost of Ownership."

The only option left to the 140,000 HP-UX customers now using Oracle is some kind of migration or upgrade changes, unless Whitman can work conciliatory magic on Oracle -- a place that now sells competing Sun servers with a restarted SPARC processor development plan. The HP-UX and VMS sites are either migrating to Mimer, or migrating databases to those ProLiants or Dells while their applications remain on HP-UX and VMS.

Well, there is one other option for HP's Itanium base. It's a strategy Whitman has complete control of, given that she's now President and CEO of a company which will post more than $10 billion in yearly profits in just a few weeks. Whitman can green-light the migration of HP-UX and OpenVMS to a second architecture, other than HP's proprietary Itanium chips. Customers ask about running HP's Unix on Intel Xeon-based systems such as the Dells and HP's own ProLiants. VMS would have to get the same R&D green light from the top.

HP's Unix and VMS reps have reported that kind of engineering project is too expensive to start. Those words will sound familiar to the HP 3000 customer, who had to watch VMS get a port to Itanium while MPE remained on PA-RISC. When an OS maker won't move an environment to an architecture it doesn't own, but is bolstered industry-wide, it can signal the beginning of the end. HP's got a great reason to port these environments, given Oracle's competitive clamor. If HP doesn't have enough profit to make software engineering R&D investments on this level, it's demonstrating less reverence for software than is healthy for long-term customers who don't want to pay to migrate.

There's one more escape hatch for the VMS and HP-UX user, should Oracle refuse Whitman's communication charms. It comes from a company that's been in the business of emulating VMS environments for more than a decade. Stromasys, which is releasing an HP 3000 server virtualization package in January, could use its technology to let HP-UX run on Intel hardware. This might not be the migration that HP hoped to spare its users. But at least it wouldn't be turning over all those HP-UX Oracle installs to Windows and Linux competitors of IBM and Dell, or the Solaris-Unix servers from Oracle.