IBM announced it's buying Red Hat, paying an all-cash price of $34 billion to help make Big Blue relevant in cloud computing. While investors hated on the deal in the markets, others like Robert Cringley said it makes sense for Big Blue to own Red Hat. It's a color wheel that's spinning around IBM's enterprises. The ones that are the oldest might be those that stand to gain the most. It's the word "most" that reminds us how HP might have salvaged the future of MPE, if only with a deal to bring open source to enterprise customers.
One of my favorite readers, Tim O'Neill, sent along a message about RedHat + IBM. He said that this acquisition could have been done long ago—so long, in fact, that Hewlett-Packard could have executed it before the company stopped believing in MPE/iX. That would have been in the late 1990s, happening to a company that was deeply invested in two technologies just about played out today: Itanium and HP-UX. HP had faith enough in Itanium to stake its enterprise future for its biggest customers on the chips.
As for HP-UX, the OS that HP set out to devour 3000 opportunities, it remains to this day an environment that runs only on HP's architecture. HP used to snicker at Linux and open source options in those late 1990s. One presentation that sticks in my memory has an HP manager presenting a slide of a cartoon drawing of an open source support expert. He's a guy in a goatee slouching in a bean bag chair, mouthing "Dude" in a cartoon balloon.
HP meant to tell the audience that getting Linux support from HP was much more professional. Another message the cartoon sent was that Linux really was something dominated by open source nerds. Just about 20 years later the Revenge of the Nerds moment has arrived with a $34 billion payday. For some reference on that number, recall that HP gave up about $25 billion to purchase Compaq, a company with factories as well as labs.
HP used to have a slogan in the 1980s for advertising its PCs: What If? The IBM acquisition triggers the what-if thinking about Linux as in, "What if HP might have purchased the leading distro for Linux and used it to improve its proprietary environments' futures?" Would it have helped in any way to have a true open source platform, rather than just environments that were called "open systems?" The difference between an open source and an open system matters the most to developers and vendors, not to system makers. If Red Hat Linux might have helped MPE/iX look more open, at a source level, who knows how the 3000's prospects might have changed.
The melding and overlay of operating environments as different as Linux and MPE/iX had been tried before at HP, more than eight years before the company made its way away from the enterprise computing HP Way. In 1993 the project was HP MOST, one where I did some writing for Hewlett-Packard about a world where everybody could live together. Cats and dogs, Unix and MPE XL, all working together.
MOST wanted to do just that, with MPE being the command module and HP-UX being the excursion module that would bring in the applications. It was a project that acknowledged the strengths of both kinds of technology, something open and something efficient. It ran dog-slow in the few spots where HP beta tested it. HP MOST had no serious love in a salesforce selling Unix everywhere that MPE/iX was installed. "If you build it, they will sell it" was an HP concept at the time, but the amount of sales in that formula were usually disappointing.
Now IBM has donned its Red Hat and some of its least open-sourced projects have a chance to benefit. I know an engineer inside IBM who's a lifelong AIX support expert. AIX is the equivalent of HP-UX, and much like HP's Unix, that OS runs best on IBM's proprietary architecture. This Red Hat deal "will be really good for POWER," the engineer said to me. We were both wearing costumes at a Halloween party while he said it, but there was no trick in his thinking. When a vendor is entrenched in its own inventions it can lose sight of what's succeeding better. IBM might have bought Red Hat too late. It's the kind of daring move that has kept that company in one piece, though.
HP invested deeper into being a commodity computing company when it bought Compaq, adding nothing but the VMS legacy to its software assets. That legacy lifted VMS into the lead in investing in Itanium. The smaller customer set of 3000s was put aside so VMS could get its technical makeover for the proprietary Itanium platform. Now that Itanium has cratered and VMS has been sold off to VMS Inc. and Linux is ruling the future of cloud platforms, it's time to wonder — if only Linux could have been married to MPE/iX and PA-RISC, what might have been?