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July 30, 2020

How OpenVMS Escaped the MPE/iX Fate

Fire escape
VMS people got a better deal than 3000 folks. The operating system for DEC minicomputers mirrors the 3000's OS in many ways. The most important way was the goal for getting an OS into the market during the 1970s: servicing business computer users. VMS was also built to support science and technology computing, which was really more of a matter of who Digital chose to sell to than any technical advantage. HP tried to sell MPE to the sciences and tech firms, but DEC got more applications needed to embrace those markets.
 
It was a big advantage for VMS. Once the Unix drumbeat got loud it was being called OpenVMS, in the same way that HP tried to rebrand the HP 3000 with an "e" at the front of the number. Not "e" for excellent, but e for Web-ready. It doesn't make a lot of sense now, that naming, but at the time "e3000" was clever paint on a pony that already had plenty of victories around the business track.
 
Years earlier, HP changed the suffix behind the new MPE. Instead of MPE/XL, it became MPE/iX. The new letters were there to show the OS had Posix bones. That was an era when putting an ix at the end of anything was supposed to give it good coverage. They were times when proprietary operating systems were in full rout, except at IBM.
 
OpenVMS wasn't special enough to save DEC from being purchased by Compaq, though. DEC had no small business products to rival the Compaq servers, but it had plenty of customers running corporate and business organizations. Selling to business, especially overseas, was supposed to be easier for Compaq once it acquired the Digital salesforce. Neither Digital or Compaq were Microsoft, though. A few years later, Compaq had to wade into the arms of an HP that was eager to be the biggest computing company in the world. Size, that HP believed, really does matter.
 
While HP had opened its exit door for MPE, Digital OpenVMS customers were looking over their shoulders at the Windows-heavy HP now being run by Compaq executives. HP put money into VMS for more than a decade after HP stopped selling 3000s. Then they sold the rights to the OS to a private company that’s staffed by former DEC/HP people. The company, VSI, has served VMS support calls for HP since 2017.
 
That company has been rewriting VMS to run on Intel x86-64 processors. It will take another 18 months before VMS Software Inc. will release the first production-caliber release. They’ve been working since 2017. Yeah, a full five years. VSI is bankrolled by Teradata, which has been plowing millions into gathering control of the OpenVMS futures. VSI has been told to at least break even pretty soon.
 
OpenVMS customers are just as ardent as MPE brethren about the prowess of their OS. The ecosystem, as HP liked to call the collective of vendors and hardware providers around its 3000, was larger for the OpenVMS boxes of various flavors. First there was the PDP hardware, then VAX, and after HP's three years of engineering, an Integrity-Itanium release of OpenVMS. All of these were proprietary hosts, however, something that Intel and AMD have reduced to footnotes on the business computing legends.
 
VSI's port of OpenVMS has been a fascinating look at a future that might have been for 3000 owners. The company is thick with tech legends like Chief Technology Officer Clair Grant. The labs are in Bolton, Mass. just 15 minutes down MA-117 from the DEC mothership town of Maynard. Funded by the investment of a multinational business software corporation, VSI began with a close relationship to HP.
 
Relationships between vendors and OS manufacturers can be prickly. Lots of smart people in boardrooms together can make for contentious meetings. Or you might look at vendors at the Interex Management Roundtables, eager to tell HP how it should be taking better care of MPE/iX and 3000 customers they have in common.
 
Size did turn out to matter to the future of OpenVMS. It was the crown jewel of Digital's throne room, tended to with a care that MPE could only envy at HP. Enough of the sciences, technology firms, and businesses like manufacturing chose DEC to give it a massive lead in the installed base count over MPE/iX. HP had to choose something to preserve from Digital when it bought Compaq. That decade of development in the HP's labs -- well, those offices in Massachusetts — gave VMS experts the means to build a support talent needed for a stable legacy system.

Photo by thr3 eyes on Unsplash

01:31 PM in History, Homesteading | Permalink

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