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HP placed a bet on SQL with open IMAGE

August used to be a month for HP 3000 gatherings. The majority of the community's Interex conferences convened in this month, including one in San Francisco 20 years ago. In 1993, Hewlett-Packard was making a gamble on the future of the database that had already led the 3000 to 70 percent sales growth.

HP Market PushWhen the year opened, HP was telling customers that unit sales had led the computer out of the wilderness. "It's not a backwater," said HP's UK Managing Director John Golding. "It's an important order and profit generator." But the open aspect of the 3000 was dragging focus away from the server -- HP's own focus. Changes from inside HP's IMAGE labs were going to refocus attention on the heartbeat of the MPE/iX experience.

HP said "it believes it is the first vendor to develop an SQL-based interface that read and write information stored in a previously non-relational database." The new HP IMAGE/SQL, replacing TurboIMAGE, was supposed to bring the 3000 customer a wider array of reporting tools. Maybe even more importantly, IMAGE/SQL would connect the 3000 with other systems' data. The media and analysts were calling those other systems Open. 3000 users needed that word applied to their computer to regain HP's interest.

The ardent fans of IMAGE could see the possibilities of a SQL interface. But HP had made tens of thousands of customers out of companies that found the networked TurboIMAGE worked just fine. The technical trick was to put an interface onto a successful database that wouldn't demand a migration.

This kind of backward compatibility was once religion at HP. Software created for a 1970s 3000 ran unmolested on a '90s server. It stanched the turnover rate for the computer, since an '80s model would run well into the next decade. But even with that self-imposed governor of churn -- the abiding value of investing a six-figure cost into a system -- the 3000 was managing 30 percent turnover in 1993. Almost one system in three was being upgraded.

So changing the essential database on the 3000 was no small bet. A satisfied customer base was a crucial component of the 3000's healthy profits. HP had to add connections to databases that were not locked to a hardware vendor, such as Oracle, Ingres, Informix and Sybase.

In much the same way that HP's engineers managed to launch a new hardware architecture that ran classic software in 1987, IMAGE/SQL emerged by the summertime conference as a seamless hit. The new interface was considered a gateway to wider use of IMAGE data. The chairman of the IMAGE Special Interest Group Jerry Fochtman flew the checkered flag in a letter to the HP Chronicle that year.

The new IMAGE/SQL feature will provide users with a wealth of new opportunities, using leading edge technology tools to meet ever-changing business needs. This new world of data management now opened to the thousands of existing IMAGE applications will indeed have a major impact on how we utilize the wealth of information currently maintained in existing IMAGE databases.

The tech was executed so well that HP didn't feel the need to celebrate a SQL extension at the San Francisco conference. "To HP's credit, they have again successfully added new functionality to IMAGE which is backward compatible with existing user application investments," Fochtman said. The key there was users' applications. The 3000 grew to its heights by being a general-purpose computer that companies wrote their own software for -- and those customer applications are the ones which remain running today among homesteaders.

The SQL shift didn't impress third parties like Oracle as much as HP 3000 users hoped, however. Three summers later, HP rolled out the HP DataMart Manager software for "small and midsize data warehouses." But through four pages of HP press release about the Manager, only HP 9000s running as open systems got a mention at the software rollout. Not even the list of clients could include the 3000. "It supports most popular data-access, reporting and OLAP tools that run on Unix, Windows, Windows NT, Macintosh and OS/2 operating systems."

C'mon. OS/2?

Data access was at the heart of IMAGE gaining its SQL interface, but the addition wasn't sticky enough to earn the 3000 any extra care from HP's alliances and strategy leaders three years later. SQL did its work for existing customers, however. It gave thousands of them extra years of value for data on their HP 3000s. And it continues to do so, two decades later.