Winds of change blow through HP's closets
TBT: HP Image goes dead. Long live IMAGE

Carrying ODBC Links Into Windows Use

Windows 7Software that helps HP 3000s remain relevant is still being sold and still working. MB Foster sent an email this morning that reminded the 3000 community they've got a leg up on important connectivity. It's called ODBCLink/SE, installed on every HP 3000 that has the 5.5 release of MPE/iX running. It could also use some updating.

MB Foster's Chris Whitehead annotated the distinctions between ODBCLink/SE and its fully-grown sibling, UDALink. "Numerous organizations continue to utilize ODBCLink/SE (Special Edition of MB Foster Technology. Developed and distributed by HP on HP 3000s and HP-UX servers)," he wrote. "ODBCLink/SE’s ability to adapt to new technologies such as JDBC or Windows 7/8, or 64-bit architectures, is severely limited." UDALink is the means to bridge those limits.

We've been tracking the ODBC functionality of MPE/iX and IMAGE since the beginning — ours, as well as the customer demand. In 1994 MB Foster started selling ODBCLink for connecting to desktops. The start of widespread demand for better SQL access was in the fall of 1995, at the same time the NewsWire launched. HP labored to build access, and that labor progressed slowly. By December 1996 we pointed out in an editorial that deliberate work from MB Foster's engineers was going to bridge the HP gap.

The 32-bit world that Win95 created didn't have an HP-supplied path between HP 3000 databases and those slick, graphical interfaces on PC desktops. Third parties have stepped in to sell what HP is still working to bundle. Companies using ODBCLink praise the product and the connectivity it brings. So much praise has rained down that HP decided it should buy what it has been too slow to build. A deal was signed between HP and M.B. Foster. ODBCLink gets a trimmed-down cousin, ODBCLink/SE.

HP got out of the PC-based software business by turning to ODBCLink/SE. There's an extensive table in today's MB Foster email that shows why this free software in HP's MPE FOS has significant shortcomings. Updating this kind of essential tool can be a big step in keeping a homestead 3000 in the loop for corporate data. It's a story as true today as it was 20 years ago.

By 1996, Birket Foster said if customers could consider ODBCLink/SE as entry-level software, "we feel there is room in the market for both an entry level and a full-featured commercial solution. I think the issue is 'free' software, not the ability to solve the ODBC problem. That solution has been here for awhile."

In 1997 HP first shipped ODBCLink/SE from Foster's labs, wired into the MPE/iX 5.5 Express 3 release. We called it "the long-awaited ODBC driver to support 32-bit clients."

While customers must still navigate the complexity of Allbase/SQL and its attach/detach challenges, the software will finally give IMAGE/SQL customers a way to use things like Crystal Reports and Access 97 to tap their databases with both read and write capability. That capability is becoming more commonplace -- and much simpler and faster, by some reports -- if you're willing to buy a third-party tool to do the job.

As soon as SE was out there, people began to decide if bundled software was valuable enough to succeed. In a 1998 review, Joe Geiser said of that software, "it requires the use of IMAGE/SQL and the obligatory attachment of databases. Larger projects, however, should be using a commercial driver. The reasons are simple — ODBCLink/SE is the slowest of all of the available drivers, and consumes more connections to the HP 3000 than its commercial counterparts, issues which contribute to problems with response time and performance."

Geiser didn't even get to consider that 32-bit computing was going to be a full generation behind the current standard. The 64-bit standards didn't arrive until Windows 7.

In a 1998 review, another of our writers, John Burke, asked, "Are you going to use ODBC for anything more than casual, occasional access to a handful of IMAGE databases? If the answer is “yes,” then you need to consider the hidden costs of the free ODBCLink/SE."

In 1999, retiring GM Harry Sterling chronicled HP's reliance on the SQL lab at MB Foster. 

Customers buy the hardware from us, but there’s no value in our software to them. For any added value in software above the base, we prefer our partners do that. It frees us up to do the operating system stuff, and it gives the partners a revenue stream. I could see we were going to have another year of investment, and no revenue for that. I re-channeled those engineers back into networking, which was more critical for us at the time.

I canceled our whole ODBC driver project. 
It was halfway implemented, and I said “We’re not going to do this. It’s clear the customers are not going to pay for it. They want it free.” We started negotiating with Birket for ODBCLink/SE. We said hey, if you sell this and build stuff on top of it, and be willing to contribute the base driver in FOS, we’ll put that out that base driver for nothing, and you can sell products on top of it.

Two decades later, Foster's still willing to sell products on top of that base driver. Homesteaders can stick to solid tools, so long as they're being advanced and updated.