In Your History: Strobe emulator project rolls up sleeves
February 10, 2021
Editor's note: Strobe abandoned its emulator project before Stromasys released its Charon emulator for PA-RISC in 2012. Strobe was the first to announce officially, though.
Strobe commits engineering time to design HP 3000 replacement
3000 support now stands by for the next seven years and beyond. Applications continue to work on HP 3000s. The base of MPE experience is adequate, with IT pros ready to pass on 3000 skills and employ what they know. The only thing missing for the HP 3000 afterlife is new hardware — and if a Pacific Northwest company succeeds on its mission, new 3000 systems won’t be missing for long.
Strobe Data, a company with almost 20 years of experience building hardware emulators, has revealed that it has started design on an HP 3000 emulator. Mike Penk, the engineer who just completed Strobe’s software-only product that emulates Digital’s venerable PDP-11 systems, is leading Strobe’s efforts. The end result will let PC hardware act as if it’s a system with HP’s PA-RISC CPU at its heart, the processor that drives both HP 3000s as well as HP’s older Unix systems.
The newest Strobe project will take several years to deliver its first version. Strobe’s president and founder Willard West said his company’s business experience in emulator lifecycles tells him there’s no rush to complete a product before HP leaves the 3000 support arena. In fact, the lack of vendor support for discontinued systems has been a part of the Strobe business model.
Used HP 3000s will still be in the market by 2007, but West says his company has never considered used systems as competition for Strobe emulators. Price won’t help used systems compete, he believes, even if they sell for a fraction of an emulator.
“If a customer’s going to buy used product, he can probably buy it for 10 percent of what our product will sell for,” West said. “But it’s used, and who’s going to support it? I just don’t see that the used market will be viable two years from now.”
After gathering data on the 3000 market last year, Strobe seemed poised to start design of a product they’ve built for other platforms. The company waited until the summer of 2004 had passed before tossing its hat into the homesteading ring.
“The need [for an emulator] has developed, and nobody has stepped in to address that need,” West said. “We have a solution that we have been working on, in various flavors, since 1985.”
No HP dependency
Design and testing of an HP 3000 emulator stood at the heart of early plans by advocacy group OpenMPE. Prior board members reasoned that without replacement hardware available to the market, the 3000 platform couldn’t maintain a mission-critical profile. Emulation — where a software suite or a hardware-software combination transforms a PC processor into accepting HP 3000 instructions — dominated OpenMPE and homesteading discussions until late 2003.
OpenMPE even worked to get HP to declare its intent to offer an emulator-level license for MPE/iX, available beyond 2006. HP managers from the HP 3000 division offered a letter of intent to demonstrate their commitment to support an emulator with such a license.
But OpenMPE activity during the past year has focused on getting a limited license from HP to use the MPE source code in development outside HP. In the group’s latest strategy, 3000 hardware would be plentiful, while MPE/iX will need continued care after HP shut down its MPE/iX labs. HP has said it won’t decide on such third-party licensing of MPE source until the second half of 2005.
Stobe’s project doesn’t depend on anything that HP might decide. West said keeping MPE/iX static, with no further development beyond HP’s efforts, works for a marketplace accustomed to reliability.
“I kind of see OpenMPE going in the wrong direction,” West said. “People are homesteading because they have a reliable piece of software and reliable hardware. When people start talking about changing either one of those, they get nervous. What assurance do they have that the OpenMPE group has the resources to do this?”
Although Strobe’s aim is to create a product that processes MPE/iX commands exactly like an HP 3000, Strobe’s efforts could require more intimate knowledge of MPE’s internals than the company has on its staff today. The emulator itself is likely to be a software product at first, running on an Intel Pentium chip and using Linux to manage system operations. This design follows the model Strobe used in its most recent emulator, a software suite called Osprey/MP that mimics the Digital PDP-11 hardware.
Performance challenges might push Strobe to incorporate custom-designed hardware in its emulator, West said. “We may build a PA-RISC hardware platform eventually,” he said. “If the customers need more speed than say, a 4Ghz dual Pentium-4 can give them, we’ll have to turn to the hardware implementation.”
Strobe sells hardware products which emulate the HP 1000 servers, used for real-time applications, as well the Data General Eclipse servers and those PDP-11s. Strobe recommends its customers use server-class PCs with top-grade memory and storage when emulating these business-class servers.
HP’s letter of intent for licensing MPE/iX on an emulator requires customers to use HP computers, although engineers at HP say there’s no way for MPE/iX to check what kind of PC is executing the 3000 applications’ instructions.
In the meantime, HP has said that it will transform HP 9000s into HP 3000s on a limited basis, which would keep even more sites on HP-built hardware. West is unconcerned about HP’s latest offer, one that might be available only to the largest of HP 3000 users.
“Can I kiss them for doing that?” he asked. “They’re keeping those customers in stasis for me when they do that.” Staff at HP’s own IT operations have been asking about how to compare HP 9000 models to 3000 counterparts, so HP’s IT shops could continue to use transformed 9000s for business-critical MPE/iX applications.
Those software applications extend the lifespan for an emulator product, West said. “There’s lots of things that can happen to software,” he said, “like it’s not documented, or the people who wrote it aren’t around anymore. There’s lots of reasons to homestead.”
Strobe says it has several customers who have offered it seed money to start work on an HP 3000 emulator. Rather than raising capital to start development, Strobe can use profits from its emulator business to begin work. “I have a company, a foundation of an income stream,” West said. “I can make the commitment and then have the money flow in.”
Some of the most extensive work on the project will involve managing IO streams between storage and the emulated processors. West said enlarging the volume size an operating system can handle is the problem his company has most frequently encountered.
Strobe will build an execution engine for the PA-RISC instruction set, an effort that “will take no more than 30 percent of the effort” on the project, West said. Most of the challenge of making software stand in for a computer lies in virtualization: the redirection of peripheral data into and out of the core processor. IO instructions are trapped and passed to the host, so disc drive models are emulated in software under Windows or Linux.
Strobe’s emulator will only be aimed at supporting the 32-bit mode of the HP 3000 and HP 9000. A version that runs Linux will come first, to prove the PA-RISC emulation concept, West said. Unix is likely to follow, and then the Strobe emulator will have to mimic the “BIOS switch,” as West called it in shorthand, which tells MPE/iX that it can continue booting on the hardware.
The MPE nuances that make HP’s PA-RISC computers become HP 3000s lie closer to the end of Strobe’s emulator project. West believes his company will have access to 3000 experience by then.
“When we get to the point where we want to run MPE as a test, I have great confidence that HP, with that [MPE/iX] license, will tell us how to implement that switch,” West said. “We’ll certainly have experience in the operating system by the time the product is up and running.”