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HP to rejuvenate OpenVMS on Monday

Company plans to inject new life--or more accurately, a new processor--into the venerable OS, CNET News.com has learned.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
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Hewlett-Packard plans to inject some new life--or more accurately, a new processor--into its venerable OpenVMS operating system on Monday, CNET News.com has learned.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based computer and printer company is launching version 8.2 of the operating system, which for the first time will bring OpenVMS to Itanium processors, sources familiar with the plan said. The announcement will accompany a refreshed Itanium server product line that HP will trumpet during a Webcast with Chief Executive Carly Fiorina on Tuesday.

With the launch, HP will seek to retain historically loyal customers who today are prime targets for competitors such as IBM and Sun Microsystems. HP is vulnerable because its OpenVMS customers face a major hardware and software transition: HP is phasing out the Alpha processor that is the primary foundation for OpenVMS today.

The debut of OpenVMS 8.2 will mean that a fourth operating system can run simultaneously on the same Itanium server alongside Windows, Linux and HP's version of Unix, called HP-UX. HP is expected to launch new pricing and joint support plans Monday to make that mixture easier.

HP declined to comment on its OpenVMS launch plans.

OpenVMS for Itanium will come with many of the abilities of the Alpha version--in particular a famed reliability feature called clustering that links separate machines into a tightly knit group. One machine in a cluster can fill in for another that's taken down for equipment failure or an upgrade, for example.

Itanium baggage
But the new OpenVMS version also will come with some of the baggage of Itanium. The Intel processor family had a late and troubled debut, still isn't meeting Intel's shipment goals, and faces competition from chip families including IBM's Power and Sun's UltraSparc.

HP initiated the Itanium project but gradually transferred all engineers to Intel. While other companies sell servers with the chip, HP remains Itanium's most ardent supporter.

Itanium's troubled debut has given pause to Jess Goodman, VMS systems manager at AccuWeather, who runs 34 VMS systems to process information sent to the company's weather Web site.

"Certainly I'm a little bit worried about how Itanium hasn't turned into Intel's flagship as we had hoped," Goodman said. "I'm somewhat concerned about the future of VMS if there's no good hardware to run it on. If no one is buying Itanium, will there be enough research and development money to keep them competitive with other chips?"

Goodman is keeping his eyes on Itanium, but so far, "We haven't seen anything yet that's making me want to go," he said.

But others are more excited. "We are looking forward to it," said Jack Steinman, vice president of information services for Aurora, a nonprofit organization that runs more than 250 hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities in eastern Wisconsin. Aurora needs expanded computing power that the Itanium systems will provide, and will upgrade once its software suppliers test and certify their Itanium versions, he said.

Cost will be an argument to go to the new systems, said Jim Custer, director of HP server product marketing for Avnet, a major HP partner that distributes and resells OpenVMS and other servers.

"In the long run, running infrastructure on Itanium is going to be much less expensive on Itanium than Alpha--both the initial acquisition (cost) and ongoing maintenance and support," Custer said.

Even with a new low-price OpenVMS edition coming, though, HP doesn't appear to be trying hard to attract new buyers, Custer said. "Their primary goal is to protect the installed base and make sure the customer has an adequate roadmap. Gaining net new (customers) may be secondary at this point," he said.

Storied past
OpenVMS began its life in 1977 as VMS, the operating system that powered Digital Equipment Corp.'s once-dominant VAX computers. DEC's so-called minicomputers unseated mainframes, but

Unix servers and the powerful RISC (reduced instruction set computing) processors later turned the tables on the VAX machines.

DEC embraced RISC and Unix, but it wasn't enough: Compaq Computer acquired DEC in 1998. But Compaq also decided not to go it alone, and HP acquired the company--along with OpenVMS--in 2002.

When HP bought Compaq, OpenVMS "was probably one of the close calls when they decided what was going to move forward and what projects they were going to cancel, simply because OpenVMS is clearly for legacy systems," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. "When (administrators of) legacy systems are faced with a transition, they are going to look at other alternatives."

But presumably, HP did the math and decided the investment was worthwhile--unlike the conclusion it reached with its largely phased-out HP 3000 line. The OpenVMS business was profitable in 2003, but HP declined to state whether it is today, citing investor regulations.

Sun is one company that would like to lure OpenVMS customers. But the company doesn't plan a high-profile campaign such as its HP Away program to convert HP-UX customers, said Larry Singer, vice president of Sun's global information systems strategy office.

"I don't see the compelling market event to cause people to go running away from that platform. It's more of a slow slide into the horizon," Singer said. Sun will try to pick up customers who aren't satisfied with HP's support or who are paring down the types of servers in their data centers, though. At HP, "it is very clear that OpenVMS is not a strategic operating system and Alpha is not a strategic platform."

It's not surprising why competitors are pouncing. In August 2003, well after HP announced it would maintain OpenVMS after the Compaq merger, a survey by an HP user group called Encompass found that 42 percent of 569 HP customers planned future OpenVMS purchases, but half that--21 percent--did not.

HP isn't the only one seeking to rejuvenate a stalwart product line. IBM has updated its iSeries--long called AS/400 and another decades-old family--with its new Power5 processor. The same IBM Power machine now can run Linux, IBM's AIX version of Unix and the iSeries operating system, i5/OS.

The multi-OS playing card
And like IBM with Power, HP is expected to tout Itanium's ability to run multiple operating systems.

"It gives a customer flexibility," said Avnet's Custer. "As they plan for growth or a transition of their business, they can take that infrastructure and redeploy it elsewhere."

For Accuweather's Goodman, the multi-operating system ability makes it easier to free up purchasing dollars for OpenVMS systems.

"It holds appeal for management," which likes the argument that the company can use the server for Windows later. "I want a box for VMS. They say they're not sure we'll be using VMS in five years. They've been saying that for 20 years," Goodman said.

Another company intrigued by the multi-operating system abilities of Itanium is Cerner, a major HP partner that sells health care software called Millennium--30 million lines of code and 56 modules for tasks such as recording patient information, logging pharmacy orders and billing insurance companies. Cerner sells its software along with either HP's Alpha-based hardware running OpenVMS or IBM's Power-based hardware running AIX, but the company has begun investigating using Linux on those servers, too.

"We are seeing more (customers) that are asking specifically about Linux," said Mike Nill, vice president of technical architecture at Cerner. "We can run Linux on the IBM boxes and the Itanium boxes. We're starting some initial research-and-development work there."

Cerner has been working closely with HP to translate the OpenVMS version of its software to Itanium, but the software isn't ready yet, Nill said. "There's some more time to get fully certified on the technology. It's in the relatively near future," he said.

OpenVMS 8.2 features
HP is expected to release three versions of OpenVMS 8.2, said Terry Shannon, longtime OpenVMS watcher and author of the Shannon Knows High Performance Computing newsletter.

The Foundation level will be for low-end use and price-sensitive customers; the Enterprise level will sport better reliability, management tools and performance; and the Mission-Critical level will feature support for clustering.

OpenVMS 8.2 supports clusters of as many as 16 machines--up to eight Alpha-based and up to eight Itanium-based in the same group, a source familiar with the software said.

HP also is expected to introduce per-processor licensing for OpenVMS, letting customers pay for the amount of computing horsepower they're using instead of today's pricing based on the capability of the entire system. The move dovetails with HP's Adaptive Enterprise initiative to better link a customer's computing infrastructure with its business priorities.

Support for the operating system initially will be available on lower-end Itanium servers ranging from the dual-processor rx1600 to the four-processor rx4640.

A key requirement for customers to make the move to Itanium will be new versions of their software, though HP offers a migration tool that eases the change even when the software's original source code isn't available.

There will be 250 OpenVMS applications available for Itanium by the end of February and 800 in 2005, HP said. That compares with 3,000 for other Itanium operating systems--roughly 1,500 for HP-UX and 750 each for Windows and Linux.