Passionate Support of Users Keeps Legacy Platforms Alive

“Legacy” platforms like OpenVMS and NonStop keep on keeping on, thanks in large part to the passionate support of their users

If you’re in the market for a stable, reliable, and manageable platform for your business-critical computing needs you’re probably running at least part of your operations on mainframe hardware from IBM Corp., Fujitsu, or Unisys Corp.

But the mainframe wasn’t always the only game in town. A decade ago, a cadre of vendors competed for high-end enterprise share. Legendary names such as Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), Tandem Inc., and (in the high-performance computing space) Cray Research Inc. were still extant, and—even though growth of mainframe and minicomputer systems was stagnating (or declining) in the face of the client-server onslaught—viable.

The DEC and Tandem brands are no more—they were subsumed first by the former Compaq Computer Corp., and then three years ago by Hewlett-Packard Co.—but customers continue to run their operations on DEC’s OpenVMS and Tru64 Unix operating environments. The former Tandem’s NonStop platform remains a formidable presence, too, in many environments in which availability is key—including prominent global financial exchanges and financial services houses. Yet the likelihood that any one of these platforms will once again emerge as a major market force is virtually nil.

So why do customers continue to bet their businesses on operating platforms that are far from future-proof? The simple answer, say many veterans of OpenVMS, and Non Stop environments, is because they believe in the technology. “[I’ve] seen it all, done it all—mainframe, midframe, x86 machine code,” says Mike Smith, a senior systems analyst with a southern California financial institution, and an administrator with 23 years of experience on Tandem NonStop systems. “I stay with Tandem because I believe in it. If [you have to] pay the bills, it helps if you believe in what you do.”

What’s more, Smith says, others in the Tandem community share this conviction. Even though the Tandem technology assets have changed hands twice in the last eight years, veteran employees have been a steady presence. “Through all of this, the veteran Tandemites were still at the other end of the phone when my shop had troubles,” he says. “The old field engineers and software support staff have always provided superior support and courtesy unmatched in my professional experience.”

If there’s one thing that frustrates users of NonStop, VMS, OpenVMS, and other storied platforms, though, it’s the apparent indifference of their parent vendors—whether it’s the late Tandem and DEC or new-comers such as Compaq and HP—to the technological promise of their platforms.

Nathan Lim, a senior software engineer with a prominent financial services firm, grouses that OpenVMS’ most recent caretakers have done little or nothing to promote the acceptance of that platform.

“I have not seen or heard of an instance of any new installation or any company with a new project initiative considering OpenVMS as its platform for the future. In other words—no new installation,” he says. “You cannot help but feel that you are in an old-age community where people are just waiting for everyone to die out—and that’s exactly what will happen to OpenVMS in 20 years if it does not win new customers and installations.”

At the same time, many users of NonStop and other storied operating systems believe there’s still plenty of future left in their platforms. They point to HP’s plan to transition these platforms to Intel’s 64-bit Itanium 2 processor, which—some argue—will help make these once-proprietary operating systems a more industry-standard play. “I am anxiously awaiting the Itanium-based servers,” says Jay Madore, an HP NonStop Mission Critical computing consultant.

Nathan Brookwood, a principal with microprocessor consultancy Insight64, notes that a common IA-64 underpinning across all of its platforms will free up HP to focus on other things.

“HP will be able to basically turn off the development of PA-RISC and turn off the development of Alpha, and focus all of its efforts on Itanium-based systems,” he noted in an interview late last year. “That in itself will be an achievement, because if you look at other computer companies who have merged in the past, they have never been able to get rid of those proprietary product lines.” HP isn’t so much “getting rid” of those proprietary product lines, Brookwood clarifies, as it is freeing up resources that would otherwise be dedicated to architecture-specific (i.e., Alpha or MIPS) design, development, and support.

The departure of former CEO Carly Fiorina came as a shock to many users, primarily because the acquisition that first brought them into the HP fold was Fiorina’s baby. Nevertheless, many say that things have improved since they became part of the HP family.

Some, like OpenVMS consultant Phil Lawson, expect this to be the case in the post-Fiorina HP. “HP is more used to dealing with enterprise customers, [so the acquisition has] been a great improvement, “he says. “I do feel that VMS will continue into the foreseeable future under HP. I have no problems recommending to my current customers to continue investing in VMS.”

Lawson, like NonStop consultant Madore, is high on OpenVMS’ Itanium future. “I feel that HP as an organization is committed to VMS and will continue to be committed to VMS for the future,” he says. “Itanium is just getting rolling and should provide a platform for the next 10 years or more.” Lawson is optimistic that HP could eventually have a come-to-VMS moment in which it recognizes the value of that platform. “I might see HP continuing to realize what VMS is worth, and devoting more resources to marketing it,” he says.

In spite of his pessimism about the manner in which Compaq and HP have marketed OpenVMS, Lim believes that Itanium could be a game-changer for that platform. “With the Itanium's economy of scale, OpenVMS might—just might—become price competitive again, and people could possibly consider it when they embark on new projects or new installations,” he observes, stressing that “this remains to be seen.”

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About the Author

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