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Emulator: how far it goes, and what's next

Even among the potential allies for the Stromasys emulator, uncertainty is afoot. I had a conversation with a reseller last week about the product, and he was not sure that IMAGE was a part of the solution. People approach the Charon emulator from their best-known persepective, and in most cases that’s MPE/iX and its database. Good news: Charon doesn’t emulate any of that software. It simply uses what Hewlett-Packard created and installed on everyone's 3000.

Instead of fooling with the 3000's software, the Charon product provides a pre-configured MPE/iX disk image. This is a system disk (your LDEV1), but it’s not a physical device. It’s an virtualized disk file, running on a Linux server, which the emulator then reads when it boots up MPE/iX. Once you have this LDEV1, you populate it with the software on your 3000 system -- specialized databases, configurations for IO, the works. The wizardry comes in making an Intel server which runs Linux -- the host OS of the emulator package -- behave the same as an HP 3000 server. MPE/iX is changed in no way. This is why there've been no lingering reports of the emulator failing to run an MPE application or a utility.

Emulator technology has a reputation from more than a decade ago of being a horsepower hog. But the first two generations of emulation have blown past us all, and now Stromasys is beyond instruction-by-instruction interpretation. It’s well past dynamic instruction translation, which pre-fetched a platform’s CPU instructions, then translated them into target platform code. That translation might have been called dynamic, but it was only suitable for entry-level to midrange systems.

Stromasys has left all of MPE and IMAGE’s software stack alone, and patched nothing. The product’s task is to use the latest, multi-level translation technology. Stromasys perfected this technology — the third generation of emulation — while it served users of the VAX hardware who wanted to continue to run OpenVMS after HP-Digital stopped selling VAXes.

The mission for Stromasys and its Charon products is behaving like the hardware abandoned by vendors, but not abandoned by customers with mission-critical requirements. In short, if your software is running on an HP 3000 today, it will run on Charon-HPA/3000 unchanged. Databases operate intact and as expected.

Stromasys GM Bill Driest explained that this third generation emulation takes the 3000 source hardware instruction code, then moves it to a specially developed intermediate language code that’s optimized for cross-platform virtualization. Finally, it’s translated to target platform code to let Intel’s broad, standard family of Xeon processors do the HP PA-RISC work that happened inside 3000s.

What this means is that the software doesn’t have to evolve to increase its performance. It’s a good thing, because MPE/iX is not going to evolve beyond its current rock-solid release. HP won’t permit the source code holders to create new versions of MPE. IMAGE isn’t getting new functions. Believe or not, that’s a good thing. Nothing was broken with MPE or IMAGE except for HP’s model to sell the software at the heart of a 3000.

Instead, Driest says that Charon will rely on hardware improvements to get to the next level of performance.

I’ve been in the industry 30-plus years, and the industry has learned there’s one thing to do when there’s new technology that comes out. You chase it. You migrate, you port, you replace.  We’ve turned that paradigm completely upside down. Why should we always modify the software to take advantage of hardware innovations? Why can’t we adapt the hardware to fit our applications? What you’ve done up to now is create the exact same system you had before, but on a new box. We think there are other options here.

Namely, that’s to use the increasing horsepower of Intel’s designs — the ones driven by commodity markets — to employ additional cores in processors and lift up MPE/iX performance. Soon enough there will be Charon models to match performance of the biggest 3000 HP ever sold. Eventually the rise of hardware power will take this OS faster than HP ever could.

But Driest recognizes that Charon itself has evolution in front of it. “Some of this emulator technology should become self-aware, so the emulator decides, ‘I know what I need from this hardware I’m hosted upon. Why don’t I carve out the amount of memory I need from the new host platform, and give it to MPE. No need for having the level of expertise to do that level of maintenance. And where are monitoring and reporting tools? They’re all around the place, but they’re not inside our product.

Stromasys has plans, Driest said, to enhance its virtualization-emulation products with all of that. In the meantime, however, the company could use some introductions to customers. Stromasys and the community can benefit from having the same people entrusted with MPE/iX system support to guide a 3000 site into the world of virtualization.

Those are pros like the reseller who asked about IMAGE being a part of Charon HPA/3000. They know where the prospects are who use use 3000s. They’ve become trusted advisors in this independent era of transition. While Charon still requires expertise for its implementation, these resellers and support companies are the next place the solution needs to go. Technical leaps are important, but virtualization needs to cross a threshold of trust.