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Programming Note: Independence at Hand

A Personal Path into Emulator Exposure?

CHARON-HPA3000-roadmapv2Stromasys, the vendor with an exclusive offer of HP 3000 hardware emulation, crosses into its third quarter of the life of the HPA/3000 software this week. While we work out the details of getting an update on the product, it's important to note that the first software-only version of this solution was scheduled to debut over the next 90 days. (Click on the December roadmap above for details.) Getting a foothold with a new concept of 3000 virtualization might be easier if there was a free means to test it. Stromasys has experience with a personal, entry-sized version of its emulator.

Update below: the commodity profile in the HPA/3000

Stromasys comes to its 3000 mission well-steeped in selling emulation. The company's made its mark on the Digital enterprise space, emulating PDP and Vax systems, and finally the Alpha processor which HP stopped creating. Late last year Stromasys updated a Personal Alpha version of its Digital product, calling it Personal Alpha Plus. The update to Personal Alpha -- which Stromasys says was downloaded 10,000 times -- "has twice the power of Personal Alpha." It runs at about 15 percent of the speed of the full AXP Stromasys emulator.

This isn't a hobbyist solution. It's free, yes, but Personal Alpha Plus can be used for commercial purposes. The software creates a virtual DS10 Alpha processor for running OpenVMS or Tru64 applications. Stromasys also sells optional support contracts for Personal Alpha Plus. As a reference, HP called the 600MHz DS10 "an entry-level workstation for the technical user who needs great performance on a shoestring budget." HP retired the DS10 and now sells the $20,000 rx2600 Integrity hardware instead.

There's no such alternative for 3000 customers from HP, but resellers are providing upgraded 3000s. Those larger servers are a proven solution that have real limits. So far, the embrace of the HPA/3000 emulator for PA-RISC 3000s has ramped up slowly. One customer has checked in who explored the product, but wasn't able to run it with his version of VMware. According to its product manager Paul Taffel, HPA/3000 works with the latest version of ESXi, the thin OS instance from VMware. Virtual machine hosting capability was scheduled for a "Son of Zelus" version of HPA/3000, whose release was estimated for this quarter. The Son will also be a version selling without required hardware (cloud service is expected) and therefore priced below $25,000.

Personal Alpha Plus rides on the wings of more than a decade of emulating hardware for the OpenVMS application environment. It's easier to offer a free version of a product which has proven its for-profit sales success. But perhaps a limited-horsepower, limited-quantity Personal version of 3000 emulation is an offer with some potential for traction. If only 50 copies of a Personal HPA/3000 were available, would our community bootstrap this emulator sooner with some testimony?

You'd need a copy of MPE/iX to pilot this bootstrapping, of course. Digital's management established a precedent for extending OpenVMS for free, a Hobbyist license. The Hewlett-Packard management didn't make MPE's community a hobbyist offer and perhaps never will. But it seems -- after six months of in-customer-site trials and examinations -- that a "supplies are limited" offer of the virtualization engine might lift the software beyond an initial hurdle of $25,000-plus pricing.

Vladimir Volokh of VEsoft believes in the prospects for HPA/3000. He's headquartered just up the street from Stromasys product manager Paul Taffel. After a walk down Doheny Drive to visit with Taffel, Vladimir believes the Stromasys proposition might be held back by a need to sell it with fine-tuned hosting hardware.

"That fact that they custom-built hardware for the demo might make it inexpensive, but who will convert from one customized hardware system to another?" Vladimir asks. "It should be run in its demo on a standard, off-the-shelf host computer. This lets every manager be a hero in his company, because it's easy and it's good."

Update: In spite of how we might have first understood Vladimir, Taffel reminded us that there isn't any proprietary hardware in the Charon HPA/3000 solution. Although Stromasys once considered selling reference hardware in the product -- which makes testing, upgrades and support easier for any vendor -- customers usually are offered specifications for suitable commodity hardware.

This is off-the-shelf PC gear: multiple-core Intel i7 CPUs of 2.5 to 3.7 MHz, standard memory and controllers, stock disk devices. About the only thing that's the least bit proprietary is a result of using MPE/iX. Stromasys has to provide an HPSUSAN number for a customer -- code used to be written into 3000 PDC memory -- so that now must come on a USB memory stick. But even that dongle's hardware provided by Stomasys is commodity gear.

So far, Stromasys has been cautious during the early times of this product. The hardware configured as a bundle for HPA/3410 and HPA/3510 ensures consistent test and enhancement processes. But aside from the fact that this HPA hardware uses a specific caliber of commodity components, customers also face an issue of embracing another proprietary platform for their applications, albeit a virtualized one. However vendor-specific HPA/3000 is, the software from Stromasys remains a fresh version of a previously well-known element.

"We wish them success," Vladimir said, "because it's in everybody's best interest in our community. It's in the interest of the system managers, because whatever experience they have [with the 3000] is at least something. With a new box and a conversion they restart everything. And maybe they're not that young to relearn a new environment."

Exploiting the new VMware ESXi support, plus enough customer testing, are milestones to establish a few reference accounts for HPA/3000. Evaluation copies are de rigeur even in enterprise markets. For example, VMware has a download of a free, 60-day eval copy of vSphere that can be run on off-the-shelf software.

There are probably very good reasons why a free, limited-power HPA/3000 isn't breaking the waters in a market where 3000 numbers are on the decline. It's useful to recall that the lifespan of any emulator is measured in many years more than you'd expect. But a time when there are still thousands of 3000s in service seems a better one to establish some kind of beachhead. We'll keep you updated on what Stromasys has in mind for the second half of the first year of HPA/3000's life.