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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.

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01:31 PM in History, Homesteading | Permalink | Comments (0)

July 27, 2020

Fewer voices fill the 3000's air

Mic in studio on air
There are still working 3000s out there. Some of the systems are paired with retiring staff. Boeing isn’t the only company paring down its IT workforce. In places like those, however, there may be some chances for a support company or consulting practice to be of service to a site that doesn’t have MPE/iX expertise anymore. We keep hearing about companies now servicing legacy app users with co-lo and the like.
 
Finding the opportunities can be a matter of listening for a call for help. Inside our world, the voices are growing fewer and fainter. It used to be that even 3000-L was good for an on-topic subject or two every month. Over the past 30 days, 3000-L has 18 messages. More than half of them are about how to use Linux on a home machine. The other two subjects evaluate the remaining worth of old disk arrays and an even older reel tape drive.
 
The metadata for the list — which by the way, started just a year before we launched the NewsWire — says that 368 people still get the messages. Last week, one message tried to figure out if a 7978B tape drive was worth saving. The week before, a brief exchange showed that XP drives are becoming recycle-only devices.
 
Summer traffic in our tech community is always slow. Stories from other July dates note how still the waters can be. This was the month that once preceded a North American Interex conference. In the run up to those shows, everyone took time away from community exchange.
 
The 3000-L chatter of late is about old and really old hardware -- the is a 1984 introduction date for the tape drives. Reel to reel storage feels like something out of Terminator 2, a film from 1992 where The Terminator shot up a computer room full DEC equipment that was old even in that year.
 
Some people are still using the classic gear. One company in Cleveland has "an HP 3000 957 that still chugs away. Just yesterday I had to pull some information off of it. It's surprising how the needed commands can still come to me just before I type them. I had to use Query, Quad, and Business Basic.”
 
That might be an archival system. During many weeks, keeping the archives alive here seems to be my primary mission. Your support and continued interest helps. Raise your voice if you're still listening. Share a story.
 
Photo by Fringer Cat on Unsplash

 

04:52 PM in Homesteading | Permalink | Comments (0)

July 20, 2020

25 Years: Surviving beyond HP's wishes

Pontiac survivor plate
As the 3000 NewsWire closes in on its first 25 years, our 25 Years series tells stories from selected days in history for the 3000
.

In 2002, an emulator to enable an open MPE was fresh on the 3000's table. A group of the same name, OpenMPE, took its first mission as taking hold of the 3000's OS futures. HP's Dave Wilde met with Jon Diercks shortly after HP's "we're quitting" news surfaced. Diercks launched the idea of a group to promote an open-source MPE/iX. With Linux soaring, open source would lift all ships.

Even the ones that were drifting along at the end of three decades of success.

The emulator question rose when the community appraised its options to keep its legacy choices alive. Millions of lines of proprietary HP code couldn't stand a chance of becoming open-sourced. Quickly, OpenMPE's mission became saving the HP hardware that could run MPE. In 2002, HP drew a firm line that no emulator could ever mimic the PA-RISC chips unless the hosting hardware wore an HP badge.

During the summer that led to the first Interex conference where HP had to face angry customers, the HP-only mandate stuck in the community's craw. Patrick Santucci, working with systems at Cornerstone Brands, shared his frustration on Sept. 27. "HP still seems to be saying, 'Die, MPE, Die!' Why not let the company writing the emulator decide what hardware they will support it on? After all, they're the ones doing the work."

From that conference during that week in Los Angeles, I reported, "HP gave customers the first ledges of opportunity to continue their climb with their HP 3000s, announcing it will allow a 3000 hardware emulator project to continue as well as creating new MPE licenses."

Nothing changed about HP’s beliefs about the proper future for HP 3000 owners, however. HP’s leader of its 3000 operations, Dave Wilde, still believes that every customer must begin planning for a transition of some sort. But the company’s HP World announcements represented its first realization that staying on the computer platform is the best course for some companies.

HP won’t let a [licensed] version of MPE be used with a hardware emulator before the 2003 end of sales date, although that kind of timing of releasing an emulator would be a remote possibility anyway, according to Allegro’s Scott. Another company, SRI, has said it considers creating such an emulator to be a less lengthy project. SRI sells an emulator for the Digital VAX hardware.

Almost 18 years later, that SRI emulator is Stromasys' Charon, which boasts an HP 3000 PA-RISC version. Charon began serving 3000 owners about a decade after that HP move to permit emulators. From the very first months, HP's PCs did not power the 3000 emulator.

Image by rjlutz from Pixabay

08:56 AM in History, Homesteading, News Outta HP | Permalink | Comments (0)

July 17, 2020

Logon advice launches new 3000 admin crop

Row of Lettuce
By George Stachnik

There's a new crop of people taking over management of these machines. Many of the people who have managed and championed HP 3000s in the past have moved on. Today's HP 3000 system manager is now more likely to be young and have little HP 3000-specific experience, knowledge, or training. New HP 3000 system managers have been successful managing environments that include Unix, and Windows. Now they've been given responsibility for an HP 3000, a machine about which they know little or nothing.

If you fit in this category, take heart; I think I have some understanding of what you're going through. When I encountered my first HP 3000 in 1983, all of my experience had been with IBM machines. I was glad to hear that the HP 3000 is comparatively simple and elegant to use (at least compared to a mainframe), but I was still expecting a long learning curve.

For many customers, information about the HP 3000 — especially beginners' information — can be hard to come by.

Logging on

In Lewis Carroll'sThrough the Looking Glass, Alice is encouraged to "Begin at the beginning." This always seemed like good advice to me, and that's what I'll do now. Let's begin by exploring how one logs on to an HP 3000. We'll also see how to explore your system, and find the programs, files, and information that are available to you. We may even learn a few other things along the way.

You're likely to have a PC or workstation sitting on your desktop. In that case, you need two things: a physical connection between your desktop and the HP 3000, and a piece of software that lets your desktop computer act as if it were an HP terminal--a terminal emulator.

The desktop-to-3000 connection can use the same RS-232 protocol used by terminals. But a network connection using standard IEEE 802.3 or Ethernet is preferable. All you need to know is that the HP 3000 supports industry-standard telnet services, and you can use them to log on to an HP 3000 from your desktop computer.

If you're using a Windows PC on your desktop, a number of HP terminal emulators are available. Among the best are WRQ's Reflection series from Attachmate, and Secure92 from Minisoft. PC-based terminal emulators support industry-standard telnet services to connect to hosts like the HP 3000. Reflection and MS92 also support the NS/VT proprietary protocols.

Regardless of what kind of terminal or terminal emulator you've connected to the HP 3000, pressing the RETURN key (on a PC, it's usually labeled the ENTER key) will cause the HP 3000 to transmit the string "MPE/iX:" back to you. This is a prompt from the HP 3000 inviting you to log on. It's analogous to Unix's "login" prompt.

Incidentally, if something other than "MPE/iX" appears on your screen, don't panic. The system prompt is configurable and your system manager may have changed it. Regardless of the prompt that appears, the command you'll use to log on is always the same. It's called the "Hello" command. (Didn't I tell you that the 3000 is a friendly little machine?)

The HELLO command you enter will typically include two parameters separated by a period. These two words identify you to the system. The first one is your user name, and the second one is your account name. When you log on, at a minimum you must specify a user name and an account name. If there are passwords associated with your user and account (and there should be!), you will be prompted for them.

When you've entered all the necessary passwords, the HP 3000 will display a message that identifies the system you've logged on to (called the "Welcome Message" in MPE-speak) and log you on to the system.

What happens next depends on how your system has been set up. Frequently, system managers configure their HP 3000s so that menu programs or applications are executed automatically upon logon, and exiting those applications causes you to be automatically logged off the system. You never interact with the operating system directly. So if you log on to a 3000 and are suddenly confronted with an application program, a system manager has set up your particular user and account to work that way. 

User and Account Name

Ordinarily, the system displays a prompt on your screen that ends with a colon (:). This is the HP 3000's way of prompting you for an MPE command. I'm going to explain a few of the most basic and frequently used MPE commands, and at the same time explore some of the basic concepts and ideas behind MPE.

I'll begin by raising a few questions about your user and account name (the two parameters you entered in order to log on). Why are there two? After all, you need only one name to log on to a Unix machine. Why does the 3000 require two logon names?

To answer that question, we need to explore how HP 3000s (and most other minicomputers) were used in 1972, when MPE/iX was originally designed. In those days, computers (even HP 3000s) were very expensive--too costly for most small-to-midsize companies to own. Personal computing was more than a decade away, so (capitalism being what it is), an industry called "time-sharing" had sprung up. You might be thinking, "I thought that time-sharing had something to do with vacation homes." But in the early 1970s, time-sharing companies purchased computers (such as HP 3000s) and allowed other companies to share them (in exchange for a fee).

Here's how it worked. Imagine you're the owner of a time-sharing business. You buy an HP 3000, and provide your clients (the owners of small businesses who don't have computers of their own) with terminals and dialup lines so they can share your computer. They installed their applications on your machine, and at the end of each month you'd bill your clients based on how heavily they used your computer. As you can see, it becomes very important to be able to track who was doing what with the machine.

What does all this have to do with the account and user ID you entered when you logged on? Suppose your time-sharing company had signed contracts with three clients: Tom's Dry Cleaners, Harold's Used Cars, and Dick's Bar and Grill. You might set up three accounts on your system and call them something like TOM, HAROLD, and DICK.

On the HP 3000, accounts are tools for keeping track of who is using the system's resources--CPU time, memory, disk space, and so on. For example, each account has a timer associated with it. When somebody logs on to an account, that account's timer begins ticking like a taxi meter.

When the TOM account's meter begins ticking, Tom's Dry Cleaners is charged for the time you spend on the machine. (To see how you can use MPE commands to display these "taxi-meter" timers, see the sidebar called "Listing Accounts and Users.")

But what if one of the time-sharing company's accounts requests a detailed breakdown of its bill? Suppose, for example, that Harold's Used Cars employs three salesmen named Moe, Larry, and Curly. (Hey, I didn't say it was a good used car company.) When Harold gets his bill at the end of the month, he's probably going to want to know what portion of it is can be traced back to the activities of each of his salesmen.

MPE requires that when Moe (or any other user) logs on to the system, he doesn't just log on as "MOE" or as "HAROLD" but as "MOE.HAROLD", specifying both his user name and his account name. In this way, Moe actually kicks two timers into action. One is associated with the HAROLD account and accumulates all the time logged by any and all HAROLD users. The second is associated with MOE.

Each HP 3000 account has a password to protect it from unauthorized usage. Each account also has a number of users associated with it, and each also has (or at least should have) a password of its own.

Each user name is associated with one and only one account. In other words, you cannot log on to an account unless you have a userid that belongs to that account. For example, Moe works for Harold's Used Cars. Therefore, his username has been tied to the HAROLD account, and he must log on as "MOE.HAROLD". He can't log on as "MOE.TOM" or "MOE.DICK".

In this sense, each account can be thought of as being a collection of related users. MPE accounts are similar, in this respect, to Unix Group IDs, or GIDs. MPE systems have a number of concepts in common with Unix systems, although the terminology and details often differ.

Photo by Kenan Kitchen on Unsplash

05:49 PM in Homesteading, News Outta HP | Permalink | Comments (0)

July 15, 2020

Automated messages track 3000's orbit

Satellite ISS
A few weeks ago, an email arrived with an offer to connect me to HP 3000 matters. It's an automation option that the classic mailing lists use. About once a month, the email asks if this is still a good address. If it reaches your box, the email does its job. If the list server gets a bounce from your address, you're a no-show. You drop from the list.

This is the kind of automation that has powered the 3000 as long as it's run in businesses. The server is built to withstand ignorance. The prospect of becoming invisible at a company does not tip the server into failure. The email came from the OpenMPE mail server, once a resource for news about getting MPE/iX into open development.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is the host for 3000 mailing lists. The best known is 3000-L, plus another private list for masters of 3000 development. Then there's OpenMPE-L, starting in the 2000s. It was never a lively spot like 3000-L. OpenMPE was a defiant flag waving in the breeze of the 3000's future. 

A decade ago this month, the days devolved into the time of disputes. The formal mission of the group, to liberate MPE/iX code and take it to a community of developers, was emerging at last as a reality. However, OpenMPE could not count itself among the license holders of HP's select source code distribution. HP code on a CD sat on a desk for a while, but the $10,000 fee went unpaid by OpenMPE. The organization spurred the existence of a community-level license. It could not hold itself together long enough to become the repository of 3000 code it wanted to be.

A decade later, though, those automated emails still arrive. We are still on a trajectory toward a future, they say. Like a satellite bound for Mars and beyond, the automation and adherence to routines of the 3000 itself remains ready. A few decades ago, Alfredo Rego of Adager said his company's product had to last beyond reasonable maintenance resources.

Adager still tends to its database power tool, but a spacecraft can get far away from repair depots. That's the situation for the 3000 and MPE/iX today: still orbiting customers' planets, needing little tending. That list and its automation is a similar sign, listening for anything related to OpenMPE.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

07:46 PM in History, Homesteading | Permalink | Comments (0)