Bidding Farewell to HP's e3000

Sales of the veritable IT icon stop Friday, though HP will support customers through 2006

A veritable information technology icon will power down this week when Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) all but pulls the plug on its e3000 line of midrange servers.

HP will discontinue sales of new e3000 systems this Friday—October 31st—but has promised to support e3000 customers through December 31, 2006.

A lively group of HP e3000 users aren’t taking things lying down, however. Several plan to meet in person or collaborate over the Internet as part of a “World Wide Wake” for their beloved platform. One thing seems certain: These folks know how to have a good time.

Last September, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based computing giant announced what amounted to a swan song for the e3000, which first debuted in 1972. At the time, HP refreshed its e3000 A- and N-class servers with more powerful PA-8700 microprocessors and also introduced a new version 7.5 release of MPE/iX, the e3000’s standard operating environment.

According to HP, the PA-8700 processor upgrade effectively doubled the performance of its entry-level HP e3000 systems. On midrange e3000 systems, HP said, the PA-8700 upgrade increased performance by 60 to 100 percent. On high-end e3000 systems, HP claimed, the new processor upgrade augmented performance by more than 35 percent.

HP also offered customers initial purchase savings of up to 17 percent on per-processor licensing, and introduced low-cost upgrades to the new PA-8700 from PA-8500 and PA-8600 processors. Finally, HP announced several new storage options for e3000 customers, including native Fibre Channel connectivity.

Sounds as if HP bent over backward to accommodate users of a 30 year-old computing platform, doesn’t it? Sort of. Along with the upgrades and price breaks, the company introduced new MPE/iX to HP-UX migration and modernization tools for the e3000, with the hope that many customers would remain within the HP fold and opt to run HP-UX. To that end, HP introduced kits customers could use to convert PA-8500 and PA-8600 based e3000 servers to run HP-UX—free of charge.

Its reasoning, says Richard Partridge, a vice president with consultancy DH Brown Associates, was clear: The e3000 still had a not insignificant presence in the government sector, along with some vertical markets such as retail. “Those are the types of accounts that HP can’t afford to lose, and [it] can’t afford to upset those customers, so it’s doing what it can to do right by [these customers] and keep them with HP,” he observed, in an interview last year.

On top of that, suggests Rob Enderle, a principal analyst with consultancy Enderle Group, it’s likely that many customers in Europe and other markets outside of the U.S. still run MPE or the enhanced MPE/iX environment. “Domestically, those machines have been rotated out fairly aggressively. Government still has quite a few of them, and I believe that there are a certain [number] in Eastern Europe, although those were typically second-hand. A lot of the [e3000] machines were purchased second-hand as they were rotated through,” he comments.

Migrating an MPE/iX application written in COBOL to HP-UX isn’t—to invoke a shopworn example—as easy as dragging-and-dropping it from one platform to another, even with free migration tools. For that reason, HP dangled still another carrot to entice e3000 users to make the move: A four-fold increase in performance. When MPE/iX is deployed on an A-class e3000 server, HP says, it exploits only 25 percent of the total processor capacity—or 110-MHz for a 440-MHz PA-8700 processor. Performance reduction rates vary across HP’s A- and N-class lines of e3000 servers, but amount to at least a 33 percent reduction on the largest N-class system. Customers that made the move to HP-UX could run their applications at a much faster speed and also take advantage of I/O and other performance enhancements, HP said.

As it turns out, the company may have been understating its case. Early tests indicated that the performance handicapping—which some users disparaged as “crippling”—had a much greater effect on system performance. “As a result of doing MPE to HP-UX performance comparisons it has recently been determined that the ‘110MHz’ numbers appear to have been made up by HP marketing, and that these boxes actually only allow you to use about 55MHz out of the 440MHz available,” wrote one contributor to the HP e3000 mailing list last year. “[S]o the ‘good news’ is that your ‘110MHz’ A-class MPE system will actually become about *eight* times faster in CPU speed when turned into an uncrippled HP-UX system.”

It’s not clear how many existing e3000 shops have opted to make the move from MPE/iX to HP-UX. HP’s announcement last year of a sunset for the e3000 inspired lamentations from contributors to the HP-3000 Systems Discussion listserve, many of whom bemoaned what they feel is the abandonment of a still viable platform. “MPE in its heyday really advanced the state of the art, but fell out of favor within HP because it was much easier and more lucrative to pushboxes that ran an ‘open system,’ because that is what the magazines werecovering,” wrote another listserve contributor last year.

An Irish Wake for a Beloved Platform

As the clock winds down, HP e3000 users will mark the passing of an old friend by participating in a rollicking Irish wake.

Many have arranged to meet at offices, pubs or even homes in major metropolitan areas, while others say that they will celebrate by themselves. Still others will meet in virtual space, firing up their e3000 hardware for one last ride. Wrote one HP 3000 user: “I think I can fire up my [HP] 918, give generic telnet access to it, and let folks use Edit/3000 and simple text files.”

Others have promised HP-themed activities, including a scavenger hunt for e3000 parts and, as the clock ticks inexorably to midnight on October 31st, martial fanfare of sorts. “At the stroke of midnight for those still able to see and walk, there will be a launch of some quantities of leftover HP parts from the barrel of my 9 lb. Civil War Parrot Rifle,” writes one user.

But the realities of the e3000’s dwindling presence in enterprise IT organizations could hit home for some users. “I know of a beer joint in my area that would exactly do it. But, considering the permanent lack of interest here for anything 3000-related, I might be the only one to show up, even if I'm the one buying the beer,” lamented one user. “Besides, on Oct. 31st, I will probably be trying my best to stuff HPe3000 orders into HP's order processing up to the very last possible minute.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.