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HP tolls bell for penultimate enterprise OS

AxeandblockIt took more than 11 extra years, but HP is finally swinging the axe on OpenVMS, the next to last HP-crafted OS for business. Customers in the DEC world got a pass for their OS onto the Itanium architecture in 2001, a route that HP blocked as it started to end its MPE business. But the OpenVMS customer base will die the death at HP from dozens of cuts, beginning with an end of Integrity i2 server sales for the OS at the close of 2015.

Server upgrades for the OS will end one year later, if HP keeps to its plan. The strategy was announced in a letter that began

For over 35 years, the HP OpenVMS operating environment has served as a mission-critical platform upon which you have built your IT infrastructure. We deeply appreciate our long partnership and also the loyalty you have shown HP during this time.

OpenVMS roadmap June 2013In WW II these were called Dear John letters, received at the front from a back-home sweetheart who was stepping out of a relationship. HP couched its news in the cloak of a "Mission-critical Roadmap Update," (click for detail) and the vendor used phrases like "at least" in front of dates for ending server sales. But an 8.5 version of OpenVMS is not on HP's map, just like an MPE/iX 8.0 evaporated from Hewlett-Packard futures slides in 2001. The equivalent of OpenVMS 8.5 would be needed to support the Poulson class of Itanium chips, processors HP will use in its newest Integrity i4 boxes.

For the most loyal and patient OpenVMS customers -- who view migrating their proprietary systems as kindly as 3000 folk did -- HP will continue supporting Integrity i2 server hardware through the end of 2020. That year aligns with the one picked by HP's expert witness when calculating how long Itanium would be an HP revenue generator. HP learned something from the 3000 market while ending a business line. OpenVMS users will get more than six years of continued HP support -- longer than the five that HP first imagined when it curtailed its MPE business.

The move leaves just one HP-created general purpose OS running on Itanium boxes, HP-UX. (NonStop, from Tandem in an acquisition, is aimed at a much narrower purpose.) Like HP's Unix, OpenVMS servers come from the embattled Business Critical Systems group, where the HP 3000 lived out its remaining HP days. HP promised more remaining sales cycles for VMS servers than the 3000 servers got, but only by a few months. VMS on Integrity will serve out "at least" a remaining 30 months on HP price lists; the 3000 got 24 extra monthly reports.

HP's nod to customer loyalty in a letter from Ric Lewis, GM for the Enterprise Servers Business, was an echo of the letter HP sent to its MPE sites in 2001. It's never a good thing when HP starts off by saying your enterprise system "has served," as in the past tense.

The OpenVMS user has an advantage in its homesteading era which starts this week. The OS already has the benefit of an emulator company that's making a nice living in the DEC marketplace. Stromasys has 5,000 installations in 50 countries running its Charon products for VMS.

The road isn't fully cleared for any company to offer an emulator which will put Integrity onto Intel chips like Charon does with PA-RISC. A couple of redoubts remain. HP-UX and NonStop communities haven't gotten their letters yet. The Unix customers might slide sideways into Linux installations, but only with a level of pain and expense lower than the MPE community weathered.

The NonStop customer -- a group small enough to be unable to prop up Itanium design and improvements -- won't escape transition pain. This week would be the time to ask about HP's futures in NonStop, of course. One major difference from the 3000 wind-down: HP broke the news in the middle of its annual HP Discover show. Plenty of damage control would be on hand in Vegas this week.

HP's reaching out to support its less-independent OpenVMS customers with a "high level" of support as long as a company wants to pay Hewlett-Packard. The vendor is also equating transition with homestead support, the same kind of misunderstanding it held for 3000 customers.

We will continue to provide a high level of support to you through the lifetime of your OpenVMS environment. We have a full portfolio of servers, software, and solutions, including support for transitions to NonStop, HP-UX, Linux, and Windows environments.

None of those environments have much to offer that will make OpenVMS transitions less painful, but it's possible that Hewlett-Packard took some HP 3000 lessons to heart. That would mean that vendor-supplied transition tools will lead the way in the marketplace. But who might move from one HP proprietary OS to another? Just ask the companies which found replacement HP-UX apps for their MPE/iX applications over the last 11 years.

Hewlett-Packard doesn't consider these products proprietary, even though customer ecosystems have grown deep software roots into the operating systems' remarkable engineering. There's no significant profit that HP can make in selling servers for OpenVMS, HP-UX and NonStop. There's plenty of support profit, as there was for MPE/iX. So for at least five years after the last Integrity OpenVMS server is sold from HP, the vendor will collect support payments. This would align on the five-year mark HP that settled upon for the 3000. Sales ended in 2003, and HP's formal and full support -- including the MPE/iX lab -- shut down in December of 2008.

So even without letters to its last two Integrity environments, Hewlett-Packard demonstrates that the only future remaining for its most loyal Itanium customers will be 18 months of server sales, and 30 for upgrades.

HP called the update "a rolling (up to three-year) roadmap and is subject to change without notice." HP promised -- in the roadmap's fine print -- that what it's now calling Standard Support for OpenVMS won't be ended unless a customer is given 24 months notice.

A storm of indignity and dismay might arise in the OpenVMS community like the one we all watched here in ours. The revolt and rally might begin with the OpenVMS Boot Camp this fall, but that was never a meeting with vast exhibits and thousands of customers on hand.

VMS customers have already seen HP scuttle a business that was producing profits -- modest ones -- when Hewlett-Packard started its clock on the 3000, however. VMS managers might have made their plans accordingly. There's nothing like tolling the bell on hardware sales to spark migrations, as the 3000 community learned.

HP's making no promises about anything in the roadmap, either. "Nothing herein should be construed as constituting an additional representation or warranty or binding commitment upon HP. This is not a commitment to deliver any material, code or functionality, and should not be relied upon in making purchasing decisions." That's language HP learned to use after its 3000-exit adventures more than a decade ago.