The Spectrum Project, Part I
Cooking with Python on MPE

The Spectrum Project, Part II

By Bob Green

Last month I presented the first half of our history of the PA-RISC 3000 development, using excerpts from our old customer newsletters, supplemented with new comments (My comments are shown below prefaced by “In Retrospect”). By 1986 we reached the point where Robelle was allowed to experiment with a prototype MPE system at the migration center and were aghast at how slow and unreliable it was. And since the Unix versions of Spectrum seemed to be humming along nicely, the problem seemed to be software, not hardware.

September 11, 1987 Newsletter:

First Spectrum Shipments: Rumor has it that HP shipped the first four 930 machines on Friday, August 21st, with more to follow every week thereafter. As of press time, we have been unable to find out whether ordinary mortals are allowed to touch these machines (as opposed to those who have signed non-disclosure agreements).

In Retrospect: Due to the NDA, over a year passed with no Spectrum news in our newsletter. The project was now 18 months past the original promised delivery date, but was still far from completion. Many people wrote articles, about the Spectrum, mostly based on marketing hype from HP, but no one broke the embargo on real information. We were all terrified. The MPE group had dug themselves into a very deep hole, and no one wanted to be the one who caught the eventual backlash.

October 19, 1987 Newsletter: The Spectrum Song

Orly Larson and his database singers performed again at the Interex show, including their hit, “The Spectrum Song:”

If it takes forever, we will wait for you
For a thousand summers, we will wait for you
‘Til you’re truly ready, ‘til we’re using you
‘Til we see you here, out in our shops!

From the HP Management Roundtable: Schedule for Shipping Spectrums — “We are shipping equally around the world. Our first shipments went to both North America and Europe. We are acknowledging availability for 930s and 950s through December at this time … We expect by the end of November to be able to have acknowledged the entire backlog.”

In Retrospect: HP continued to spin the “shipments” of Spectrums, without mentioning that these were not finished products. The models were 930 and 950 and the operating system was called MPE/XL, changed in later years to MPE/iX when POSIX was integrated into MPE. By this time, HP was worried about their stock price also and did not want any negative news in the financial press, no matter how accurate. As shown by the next Q&A at the roundtable…

Early 930/950 “Shipments”

Question: “Are the 930s and 950s being shipped or not? In public you tell me they are shipped. In private, however, I hear from both users and HP that these machines are still covered by non-disclosure agreements and that access to these machines is very restricted, even when in customer sites. What is the story?”

Answer: “MPE/XL architecture is very, very new. There’s a million new lines [of code] that go into MPE/XL, and a lot of software sub-systems as well. And so we are being extremely cautious in how we proceed at this point. We’re going through what we call a slow ramp-up through the remainder of this year and going into large shipments in 1988. The reason for that is that we want to fully test out the system capability in a large number of customer environments and we want to make sure that the information on what’s going on in there and the people involved are protected from outside folks who either benevolently or not benevolently would like to find out what’s going on.

I’m sure we’re going to run into some problems along the way that haven’t been encountered in our earlier phases of testing. We haven’t really hit these machines with full production pressure yet. We know from experience that when you do that, you uncover things that you could never uncover in testing, even though extremely rigorous. [Rumor has it that the customers receiving Spectrums now are not allowed to put them into production until 1988.]”

In Retrospect: Early Spectrum customers called us to ask which version of Suprtool and Qedit they needed for their new systems, and whether there were any problems that they should be aware of. But legally, we could not even admit that we knew of the existence of the new servers. So we came up with the following wording: “If you had a new 3000, and we are not admitting that we know anything about a new 3000, you should be using Suprtool version 3.0 and Qedit version 3.6. On this hypothetical system, it might not be a good idea to hit Control-Y while copying a file from any other HP 3000. We can’t tell you what will happen, but you won’t like it.”

February 12, 1988 Newsletter

Spectrum Finally Leaves the Nest: Hewlett-Packard has officially released the 930 and 950 Spectrum computers, finally abandoning the protection of non-disclosure agreements. We have heard from several sources that the 930 and 950 attained Manufacturing Release during the month of January. This means that people who received “Control Shipment” Spectrums can now put them into production and let outsiders use them. You no longer need to sign any restrictive agreements to get a 930/950. It also means that we users can now compare notes on what the MPE/XL systems are good for.

Interestingly, we didn’t hear about the Manufacturing Release (MR) of the Spectrum from Hewlett-Packard itself. As far as we can determine, HP kept this event very quiet — no press conferences or splashes of publicity. Even some HP people in Cupertino were not aware that MR had occurred. Just because the 930 and 950 are released does not automatically guarantee that you can get one. Given the huge backlog of orders that HP has, it will make “controlled shipments” for a while, picking sites whose expectations match the state of the machines.

In Retrospect: Users had been following Spectrum for almost four years and you could see that we were eager for the release of the product. The MPE lab had grown to hundreds of engineers and technicians and hundreds of Spectrum servers. The amount of money being plowed into the project was awesome. Anyone with any kind of skills was being hired as a consultant, in an attempt to get the situation under control and begin shipping revenue-generating servers. But we were premature in our February proclamation of Manufacturing Release, an HP corporate milestone that requires signed confirmation that the product passes the performance tests set for it in the design specifications.

March 31, 1988 Newsletter

Spectrum Is Released but Not Released: In our last news memo, we reported that MPE/XL users were now removed from non-disclosure restrictions and allowed to put their Spectrum machines into production. In the last month, that news has been confirmed by many sources.

We also concluded, and reported, that MPE/XL had obtained MR (Manufacturing Release). That is untrue. MPE/XL has apparently obtained SR (System Release), but not MR. “System Release” seems to be a new category of release, created just for MPE/XL. We have heard from some new 950 customers who did not need to sign a non-disclosure agreement. However, one customer reported that before HP would allow him to order, he had to sign a document stating that he had no specific performance expectations. On the other hand, we heard from a school that recently went live with 35 student sessions and had great response times (“the machine is coasting along at 10 percent PCU utilization”).

In Retrospect: In order to stem the rising tide of bad expectations, HP released the MPE systems even though they could not pass the testing department. And the performance was still poor in many cases, less than the non-RISC 3000s being replaced, although excellent in a few other cases.

Non-disclosure restrictions are not lifted for everyone. Sites that are beta-testing subsystems which were not released with the initial MPE/XL system are still restricted. Also, third-party FastStart companies such as ourselves are still restricted from passing on any performance or reliability information that we obtain from HP. We face no restrictions regarding performance information received from our customers, so please call with your experiences.

Non-disclosure continues – HP is picking their initial customers carefully and coaching them to only pass on the good news about their new systems. We are still frustrated to not be able to pass on our ideas about how users can improve the performance of the Spectrum.

October 12, 1988 Newsletter

Gary Porto at Childcraft reports that with MPE/XL 1.1 the problem of a serial task in a batch job hogging the system is not so bad as it was with 1.0. This problem can occur with SUPRTOOL, QUERY, or any long serial task. The batch job still hogs the system, but at least people can get a minimum of work done. With 1.0, they couldn’t even get a colon! Gary reports that he has 65 on-line users on his 64-megabyte Series 950 and that the performance is pretty good — as good as his Series 70.

In Retrospect: On the 4 year anniversary of the project, HP released version 1.1 of MPE/XL, which made the systems much more useful, but still not up to the original promised performance of 1984. However, the promise of the “Precision Architecture” (HPPA) was there, as certain tasks were amazingly fast.

By this time, HP salesmen were getting irritated with us for not giving our customers any kind of endorsement for the switch to the 930/950. But our NDA was not cancelled until Manufacturing Release. Finally, the sales force convinced HP Cupertino to send us a signed release from our NDA. I don’t know when MR eventually happened.

From the UK’s HP World magazine: Early MPE/XL Migration Results. London Business School is not a typical installation. Much of their software is written using double precision floating point Fortran which benefits considerably from the Precision Architecture. MIS Director Gordon Miller says “Our straight line performance is up considerably — one program runs 40 times faster — but the performance gains are very application dependent and cannot be accurately forecast beforehand.”

Keith Howard of Collier-Jackson in Tampa, Florida participated in the Spectrum beta testing and upgraded from a Series 58 to a Series 950 — quite a leap. One application was found to be 6% slower due to constant switching between compatibility and native modes, but in most circumstances the machine was five to ten times faster than the Series 52 and one batch job ran 53 times faster!

Glaxo Export has temporarily deferred delivery on its second and third 950 systems due to implementation problems on the initial machine.

HP promises performance improvement for Precision Architecture over the next five years of 40-50 percent per year. Some of this will be achieved by further tuning of MPE/XL — version 1.1 is said to be at least 20 percent faster overall.

In Retrospect: As with the original 3000 project, the birth of the Spectrum was traumatic, expensive and embarrassing. But it paid off. HP was able to roll out better servers for the 3000 line on a regular basis for the next 10 years.

Despite the numerous expansions and revisions to the HP 3000 hardware and software, upgrades have been painless. Even the conversion to the PA-RISC design was backward-compatible and reasonably painless (if you ignore the slipped schedules). Often the user just rolled the new system in on a Sunday, plugged it into the power, reloaded the files, and resumed production. The original 1974 MPE Pocket Reference Card is still useful; everything on it works under MPE/iX version 7.5, except the Cold Load instructions. I have programs that I wrote in 1972, for which the source code was lost years ago, and they still run in Compatibility Mode.

When asked for an eulogy for the 3000, my reply was, “A great IT platform: reliable, affordable, flexible, easy to operate, and easy to program. And every release compatible with the previous for over 30 years. Perhaps some future OS team will adopt these same goals.”

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