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Finding Your Way Into Mastering Data

Three years later, OpenMPE triggers pains

Hewlett-Packard canceled its 3000 plans in 2001, which launched an open source effort for MPE less than six weeks later. Like a satellite boosted into orbit, the voyage of OpenMPE seems to have momentum even today, more than three years after a lawsuit marred a volunteer group.

Look up "OpenMPE suit" in our search engine and you'll find no fewer than 15 stories I wrote about a civil suit between board member Matt Perdue and the OpenMPE board. Some members were named individually as well as et al in the lawsuit in Bexar County, Texas. The suit was filed there because that's where Purdue lives and works.

TriggerpointYesterday I updated the OpenMPE saga by tracking the location of that satellite today. It's split into more than one trajectory. There's a website to serve archival data on the 3000. There's the remains of the suit, made up of hard feelings and legal fees. Then there's the domain of this group of volunteers, the web address where it existed in its most tangible public incarnation: I noted yesterday that Perdue renewed the domain this month, even after he'd been removed from the board in 2010.

OpenMPE triggers some pain for nearly everyone, but that's the way an overstressed muscle can behave. HP wasn't happy about having seasoned community members asking a lot of questions that had gone unconsidered about migrations. Volunteers got disappointed and left, or sacrificed plenty of time and some money while they stayed. Community members kept asking what the group achieved, even while HP tilted the table with its confidentiality demands over conference calls. Finally, during the nine months of all-out battle in lawyers' letters and in court, the very essence of assets, monies and right to operate were challenged.

We're always glad to get comments on the stories in the Newswire's blog. The ones I'm compelled to reply to are those where fairness and accuracy get questioned. Keith Wadsworth, a former board member and defendant in that suit, took the time to note my shining prejudice about the legal actions in those nine months. At the end of matter, the board where he served as co-chairman decided it wouldn't comment further beyond what anybody who'd drive to Bexar County could discover.

More than 11 and a half years has elapsed since a single volunteer, Jon Backus, met with HP's Dave Wilde over breakfast about OpenMPE. Just like the OpenVMS customers of today, 3000 users wanted to gain access to the OS source code. Open source was white-hot in 2002, with Linux swelling in popularity. Taking technology built inside a vendor and making it open seemed possible -- and just like in the VMS world, maybe a way to ensure MPE could be sustained.

Roll forward to 2008, and those six-plus years have seen HP close its MPE labs and end the CDA talks with the OpenMPE volunteers. Then-chairman Birket Foster believes there's still a chance to advocate at HP, in talks with what MPE interests remain at the Support organization. HP Support has no desire to talk with anybody but support customers, and certainly not on the record.

But one stray probe of the OpenMPE satellite remained on course: a way to license MPE for support use. The licenses don't get issued until 2010, and OpenMPE is the last company to receive its source license. Source is an asset to a support company solving problems, but it also looks meddlesome to other companies. Modifying MPE might create extra development work for anyone who sells MPE software. Customers might use workarounds that would force a vendor to support multiple versions of a utility or application.

It's a long shot, but it was possible. Nobody knew if source could have that impact. OpenMPE was the only license recipient without clients or customers. A source code license was near the top of the group's desires for its final three years of talk with HP. By that time Interex was out of business and Encompass and Connect had no link to such 3000 advocacy.

There was an election of OpenMPE board members once a year, without little opposition by the end. Volunteer work for customers using a computer cut off by the vendor -- well, that's a hard assignment. Move on, people said. Be a real company and get customers, others urged. Some said people wouldn't really be using MPE and the 3000 that much longer anyway.

In 2007 Wadsworth was asking, while running for the OpenMPE board, if any more 3000 use was even reasonable.

At this stage in the game, what is homesteading? Do you really think anyone will stay in production on the 3000 for many years to come? Stay status quo? Do you really think there are users that have given no consideration to a migration plan? Does it not make sense that everyone on the 3000 today is in some form of a migration status?

I defined homesteading because I invented the term, sitting in a London Internet cafe on the night after HP made its announcement. I wanted those who could stay on the server to understand they were more than luddites, avoiding new technology. Without the vendor's future support, they'd be on their own many times. Dugout houses on the winter prairies came to mind. Anybody who didn't already run 3000 apps on Unix or Windows or Linux could be a homesteader.

As for "many years to come," I didn't know that I'd still be writing about MPE in 2013, or reporting on a company that is saving the OS from the fate of running only on aging HP gear. The CHARON virtualized server may be stop-gap at these companies. Others have no plans to shift anything, in spite of what experienced vendors are advising.

It all looked suspicious to Wadsworth in 2007, in the months before he took his first run at joining the volunteer board. "There are real questions about what and who is OpenMPE -- and what are their real intentions. And why have HP representatives attended closed executive sessions?" he wrote to me.

By 2010, Wadsworth had made it onto the board and started to ask other questions. OpenMPE had to prove itself as a business, he told me, or it should disband. The group had been granted a license for MPE source, but it had little else as an asset. It also didn't have staff to use that asset -- or more accurately, developers who'd polish it toward productive use among 3000 customers. That source was like a drill press without any metal stock on hand to shape, or even an operator. Staff time was always an issue.

As I wrote in my reply to Wadsworth's comments, all those assets had landed in the offices of Perdue, and that was unfortunate. That's a single point of control. A dispute over using servers escalated in the face of questions from Wadsworth like, "Where are our assets and revenues, and what are they? How come we don't have accurate corporate records? What's our business plan? Shouldn't we have insurance for us board members?" Interesting questions for a group of volunteers who'd had plenty of impact on expanding HP's end-game for the 3000. The changes of HP's end-game could elude the vision of customers. Just like asking why HP was attending closed executive sessions. Because the vendor insisted the sessions be CDA-covered. OpenMPE had no leverage to say no. The discussions would be over.

OpenMPE's impact was back in the days when HP would hold conference calls. Those ended in 2008. About two elections later, the lawsuit and demands began. 28 people have served on the OpenMPE board. Of the final three to volunteer, Wadsworth was the only one to ask the board to consider if OpenMPE should even exist. His questions of 2007 about the group's motives finally had a place to be asked.

In our hindsight from 2013, we know that HP was going to cling to its MPE intellectual property even while it ended its business plans for the 3000. Just like the OpenVMS users are saying this month, there was a chance it would end otherwise. Sharing code with cut-off customers. Stoking good will, instead of believing 75 percent of 3000 sites would choose Unix servers. OpenMPE didn't get what it wanted in 2002. But it had a good reason to exist while HP would talk to it, whatever the conditions. Hewlett-Packard didn't want to continue that dialog, once its 3000 labs closed down.

A group that finds a director suing it is well, unprecedented in your community's history. Just like HP held on to an MPE it could no longer use, Perdue is retaining his use of I studied tens of thousands of words of battle between a board and a member who would resign after he filed his suit. Legal stories are complex and filled with chances to misunderstand intentions. This was no different. The resolution of the lawsuit was just as much under wraps, with Wadsworth's participation, as any conference call HP held with the boards before he arrived.

In 2010 that lawsuit was filed naming Wadsworth and another board member as individuals, as well as the OpenMPE board as a whole. A Dec. 20 email from Wadsworth to the board outlining the situation: "It seems we all are being sued by Perdue. Myself and Jack as individuals, and the Board as a whole."

So at least I've got the portion correct where Perdue files suit against Wadsworth, He did so at the same time Perdue named the board as defendants. In another email from Wadsworth, he reasons, "Perdue singled out the two new guys [on the board] for ego purpose."

By the finale of the suit, I was told by Keith that "It is public record that Wadsworth/OpenMPE have a claim for moneys taken and the standard attorney costs." He's right about one thing. I can see now how that OpenMPE claim did not arise out of a countersuit. (My paper records are archived pretty deeply on this subject but I've researched what I've got stored online.)

About the lawsuit's hearing -- a two-hour trip each way by car to a courtroom that isn't near my office, unless you compare it to a trip to California -- it was postponed twice. On May 10 there finally was a meeting to decide if the matter was going forward to trial, or would be settled. I didn't take a full day to travel to the court and attend that hearing -- which it now seems tilted the matter toward a settlement. The resolution was not crafted out in the open.

The lesson in all of these words might be simple but useless: there's no understanding some people. Or it might be trite, like, "no good deed goes unpunished," or "of fledgling aspirations come mighty deeds." We've learned one thing about MPE, though: nearly 12 years after HP said it had no more future or utility, the environment still triggers business transactions, as well as painful memories of any volunteer's attempt to make it pay its way into the future.