Fifteen years ago this week I put the finishing touches on a Q&A with Jon Backus. He might be best known to one group of 3000 managers who flagged down his taxi-like service of MPE education — his Tech University had independent experts whocarried people from one point in their MPE careers to the next, better trained. An MPECert program was part of the venture that went into business just before HP changed its mind about continuing with 3000s. Tech University offered an alternative to Hewlett-Packard training classes, vendor-led education that was on the decline in 2001.
However, there's another milestone in his career just as well known. He launched OpenMPE as 2002 began, starting with a conversation with then-lab manager Dave Wilde. On the strength of that talk, the advocacy movement ultimately delivered MPE source code to third parties. It did take another eight years, but hopes were high at the start. HP named a key lab engineer to a board of directors. Minisoft donated middleware and MPE software from some of its licensed 3000s.
Backus began it all when he launched a discussion group on the Internet to explore the ways MPE might be preserved by its customers after HP steps away from it in a few years: a homesteading option. The group moved quickly to a consensus that open source methods didn’t fit MPE very well.
“The feeling and desire is very much not open source,” Backus said at the time. “The vast majority feeling is a migration of support and control of the entire MPE environment, including IMAGE, to a new entity. The source would continue to be closely controlled, similar to the way it is today.”
Starting a education group for HP server customers was a bold move. We interviewed him as one of the last 3000 experts to sit for a Q&A before HP's November 2001 exit announcement. August 2001's HP World was the last show to offer any HP hope for the server. Without OpenMPE and its work to capture that source code, however, to independent support companies such as Pivital Solutions, the trade secrets of MPE/iX would be lost. Instead that source acts as workaround and custom patch bedrock to help homesteaders.
Source for MPE/iX was not the initial goal Backus proposed for OpenMPE, though. The whole of the 3000 business would pass to a third party in his opening gambit. HP took months to even respond to that, saying the computer's infrastructure was decaying. Tech University was already addressing the brain drain before OpenMPE was born.
"People bash HP for not offering more training. But until you push the boundaries of what your 3000 can do, you don’t have any right to pick on HP for not doing more."
One of the 3000's best HP friends at the time was Jeff Vance, who subsequently spoke for the vendor's intentions from a division-level viewpoint. OpenMPE's ideal of getting the 3000 to a new home outside HP would test the strength of a community that had just been cut off from the vendor.
“We could see if the ecosystem is still deteriorating at the rate we’ve determined, or if customers are willing to accept, say, IMAGE support from a third party,” he said. “That would be my guess at how we’ll get out — and that may lead later on to true open source.”
Vance said that HP didn't have plans to keep its MPE enhancements engineering team together beyond October 2003. As it turned out the team put a few enhancements into the community beyond that date, including an SCSI pass-thru module and a means to connect larger disk storage devices to MPE. Vance said HP resources would be vital to making any new entity successful in extending MPE’s life.
“It has to come soon,” Vance said of HP’s decision on how to help OpenMPE. “We have to make a pretty important decision, and we have to do it quickly. The longer we delay, the more the infrastructure decays.”
This isn't a story with the happy ending Backus and the advocates dreamed about in 2002. But seven companies got limited source code licenses just as HP closed down all of its MPE operations — more than eight years later. If you do business with one of the support companies with a license, that source is there to help solve a problem if needed.