HP's server hardware mirrors OS choices
August 11, 2020
Michael Kan, retired from HP support, recently reported his A-Class HP hardware goes both ways. He can boot his server with either HP-UX or MPE/iX.
"I simply configure HP-UX as my MAIN boot path," he says, "and specify the PATH on BOOT for my other disc, which is MPE/iX 7.5.5." His use of the HP designs is in line with HP's intentions for its enterprise hardware. One set of engineering was supposed to serve all: MPE, Unix, and RTE real-time environments.
For most 3000 customers, their A-Class can only boot into MPE/iX with the correct processor dependent chip in the unit. This was the issue at the center of SS_EDIT access — some hardware brokers were using it for unauthorized access in the late 1990s.
Kan moves from OS to OS with the fluidity HP probably engineered for at first. For years I wrote articles reporting that some processor-dependent code on ROM was forcing the HP 3000-styled K-Class systems into MPE/iX boot only. Software created by well-regarded MPE vendors made its way into unscrupulous hands, defeating passworded HP utility software, resulting in a way to designate an HP 9000 system as an MPE-bootable server. We might have called it re-flashing the PDC ROM at the time. It’s been a few years.
That software was SS_EDIT. The password-protected utility was being used by HP’s support engineers. The passwording was defeated, HP’s iron could be configured any way a customer wanted. Selling much-cheaper K-Class 9000 boxes as if they were 3000s became a way to buy a resold K-Class from a broker and save tens of thousands of dollars, and in some cases even more. It led to the HP lawsuit against the rogue brokers like Hardware House (the worst offender). There were jail sentences handed down to two other brokers (house arrest) while one of the Hardware House owners turned in state’s evidence in exchange for dropped charges.
Quite the cause celeb, the move seemed to show the MPE customer base that HP still recognized the inherent value in its MPE-related intellectual property. The lawsuits and HP’s High Tech Crimes Taskforce rose up in 1999 and 2000. It was a time when Y2K remediations and rewrites gave the 3000 some cover in the war over the datacenter and business computing. An HP business decision not two years later made the battle over the MPE IP moot, though.
Once the A-Class and N-Class servers arrived, a different program, SSCONFIG, began to be used. It couldn’t be defeated by outside software. HP had also shifted to a processor-linked pricing model for the 3000 and MPE. That meant the outrageous markups for the K-Class 3000s, the regrettable tiered pricing, disappeared for the newest 3000s. To escape the tiered-pricing jail, customers could buy new servers.
It hardly matters the way it once did. The upgrade HP created to PA-RISC, Itanium, is being discontinued by Intel any day now. The rewrite of MPE for Itanium was shut down after an estimate of the cost didn’t pass executive approval. HP 3000s might now number less than 5,000. But knowing you could pull an HP server from a packing crate, and boot either OS on it, feels like the magic the 3000 market needed. An HP 9000 sold for a fraction of its identical counterpart, right up to the end of HP sales of the 3000.
HP’s argument, a good one in concept, was that MPE and Image made the 3000 worth so much more than a 9000. A big problem was that the servers were being sold against one another by the HP sales force. The commercial application lead that MPE once had over HP-UX was gone. The pricing disadvantage HP put these 3000s at did its part to drag down the growth of the line.
One report I heard was that the 3000s paltry customer growth, compared to the success of HP-UX and the VAX line at Digital, is what led to HP’s cutoff of MPE’s futures. “If it isn’t growing, it’s going” away, was the statement someone heard echoed out of an executive meeting.
A support engineer, or any HP technical worker, has nothing to do with HP’s regrettable decision to kill off its MPE business. That’s a business decision based on a forecast of an ecosystem that HP controlled with its alliances, marketing, and engineering designs. At one point in the 3000’s history, though, the inability to buy raw K-Class hardware and designate it MPE or HP-UX mattered. It’s a delight to hear from Kan how the legacy engineering was supposed to work.
Photo by Lucas Ludwig on Unsplash