On the 35th anniversary of MB Foster’s entry to your market this spring, we wanted to ask its founder Birket Foster about how your group grew experience and connections. The old warning that braced conversations in the 1970s was “don't trust anyone over 30.” It's probably flipped over for the advice to 3000 customers today, since the over-30s have the best set of resources and reminders of how to move into a confident future. Much of his research is gathered in classic style, in person, wearing conference badges like the one shown at right.
Foster's MB Foster Associates was one of the first to deliver an alternative information stream for 3000 solutions, creating a catalog of MPE applications and tools. That one was a good enough idea to prompt HP to copy the catalog concept in those days when a thick book of HP and third-party apps was part of a 3000 manager's toolset. Foster moved right on to the next solution, whether it was selling millions of dollars of 3000 connectivity software, or building an ODBC engine robust enough for HP to ship inside MPE/iX, or becoming one of the first Migration partners after HP made its 2001 exit announcement. Lately the company has added a Windows scheduler and even more database access through its UDA Link lineup.
How did you enter this community back in those very different days of 1977?
I'm just out of undergraduate school and I'm in charge of getting the next computing jobs for a team of us. I decide I'm should start a company to do this, so I talk to my law professor and he says he could give me part of my grade for my second year law class for just opening a company. I took the theory and turned it into practice. At the time I'd taken income tax law. I could deduct the $400 worth of textbooks and reference books I'd purchased to build a random number generator that would support benchmarking software -- written in COBOL and platform-neutral -- we were building.
Platform-neutral suggests a lot of server vendors, right?
In addition to HP, I'd worked on Burroughs, IBM, DEC and even a Xerox Sigma system. So I'd written things in FORTRAN, BASIC, assembler and COBOL. When people would put a problem in front of me, I had to pull a team together to solve it. In the 1977 ecosystem there were a lot of different languages available. Every manufacturer had its own proprietary stuff. I had an assignment to train government DP staff to use terminals instead of punching card decks.
Terminals were just terminals, grey screens. Lots of line printers around. I liked terminals with big memories, so you could actually scroll back a lot of pages. At that time the default terminal memory had two pages in it. Disk space was really expensive then: 120MB was $60,000.
People had service bureaus. I worked with one for one of my customers. The reason we were there was because the 3000 was so expensive. Now the reason people are looking at cloud, the new service bureaus, is because the people are so expensive.
We've been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time a number of times over 35 years. We were helping customers out with some pretty big problems, like integrating PCs with their 3000s. We sold millions of dollars of WRQ's Reflection that way. This helped automate processes that went between the 3000 and the desktops. That led to us working with David Dummer, using his DataExpress, to move that product into working on spreadsheet formats. We sold DataExpress starting in 1985, and by 1989 we made him an offer and ended up owning the product, with David working on it from an office in Seattle. DataExpress gave us worldwide customers, which was another thing we'd been working on.
At least once a year you travel to Texas to visit customers and colleagues. What's that about, since MB Foster's Southern Ontario HQ is so far away?
When I started in this market it was before the Internet. You couldn't look anything up. You had to know somebody, get ahold of them and find out what they were doing. I had a huge advantage because I traveled a lot starting in 1979. I got exposed to the Quiz report writer in the earliest days, before it became Quiz. I sold [Cognos'] Quiz before Quick and QTP existed. I got to see people all over my district of Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma and New Mexico. I met people as a result of coming out to speak at regional users groups. People didn't feel the need to call each other. They just got together once a month to talk about a topic. I did the initial deal for [MANMAN creators] ASK Computing. As a result of that, at one point 25 percent of all HP 3000s were using Quiz as a report writer.
But those reports remained on the HP 3000. How did they make the transition to being PC tools accessed easily by end users?
We did some work inside the 3000 to do what we were calling Host Initiated File Transfer. We worked with Doug Walker of WRQ to have the PCs put themselves in receive mode to get handed a file, mostly spreadsheets at the time. We'd figured out how to download things to PCs by 1989, so I was teaching classes in Reflection. We were helping people put PCs on a desk instead of a terminal.
As more PCs showed up, people wanted these 3000 numbers in a spreadsheet so the finance people could look up stuff. Although DataExpress ended up with 33 formats it supported for data extraction, in the beginning it was things like Lotus 1-2-3, VisiCalc and Word Perfect mail-merge files. Now that the product is UDA Link, we've just added MySQL, Postgres, Cache, Ingres and Progress databases, plus those already supported.
How about the MB Foster database work with HP on IMAGE?
We got a contract with HP from 1996-2006 to supply the ODBC middleware for IMAGE/SQL, included software people remember as ODBCLink/SE. It was supposed to be called ODBCLink Jr. but somebody in HP marketing decided that wasn't a good idea, so they changed it to Special Edition.
In 1999 we got involved in a project for a Large Midwestern-Based Insurance Company. Our job was to connect 80 HP 3000s with 8,000 Windows servers. We had to write code called XA Compliant Two-Phase commit to do this. It gave us a lot of experience in cross-database access and understanding deeply how SQL Server worked. We could melt down Microsoft's OS before our middleware driver would fail. It gave us experience in cross-platform databases, the next stage in the 3000's life.
And that would be HP's plans to exit this 3000 market?
HP announced in 2001 that the 3000 would fade to black in a mere five years. Ha-ha-ha. It made it to 2010 before it went away at HP.