Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Itanium gives OpenVMS new lease on life

Hewlett-Packard gets OpenVMS up and running on an Itanium-based computer, a crucial step to ensuring the venerable OS doesn't suffer the fate of many of its shorter-lived contemporaries.

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.
Expertise processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science Credentials
  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
5 min read
Hewlett-Packard engineers on Friday got the OpenVMS operating system up and running on an Itanium-based computer, a crucial step to ensuring the venerable OS doesn't suffer the fate of many of its shorter-lived contemporaries.

Booting OpenVMS on an HP i2000 Itanium server is a momentous event for the operating system, which just passed its 25-year anniversary. HP is moving all its server lines to Intel's Itanium chip, meaning that OpenVMS must make the switch or be left behind with HP's Alpha processor, the last generation of which is planned for 2004.

"We're celebrating here," said Mark Gorham, vice president of OpenVMS at HP, who said the success was the culmination of 19 months of work at the OpenVMS lab in Nashua, N.H.

While OpenVMS isn't widely used, it's popular with important customers such as hospitals, stock exchanges and telecommunications companies, which HP can't afford to alienate. If HP canceled the product, those customers likely would "blacklist" HP on the basis that the company isn't looking after its customers' interests, said IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky.

Friday's positive results with Itanium mean the company will be able to begin shipping developer kits to key software partners such as Oracle in June and sell OpenVMS Itanium servers one year after that, Gorham said.

It's not the first time OpenVMS has had to grapple with major change. The operating system, one of the jewels in the crown of once-mighty Digital Equipment Corp. and originally called VMS, was designed hand-in-hand with Digital's VAX processors and computing hardware. Digital announced VMS in October 1977, and customers began using it in April 1978.

But Digital wasn't able to sustain its strength as a company, and Compaq Computer acquired the firm in 1998. Then in 2002, HP acquired Compaq.

The VMS customer base is a loyal one by all accounts, but that alone doesn't secure a future for an architecture. The HP 3000 line of computers, a contemporary of the original VAX machines and one with tremendous loyalty, still didn't have enough of a fan base to keep HP from announcing in 2001 its eventual demise.

And transitions are hard to make for the users of an OS. Software must be rewritten, tested and often repurchased, Kusnetzky said. "The longtime VAX VMS users had to go through a very painful process to become Alpha VMS users. Will they make that transition again? This is a gamble HP is taking," Kusnetzky said.

HP is confident those customers will be happy with OpenVMS' viability. Major software companies including Oracle, Computer Associates, BMC and BEA Systems have backed the Itanium version of OpenVMS. And about 85 percent of specialist software companies have expressed support, with more to come now that HP has proof OpenVMS will work on Itanium, Gorham said.

HP provides programming tools so customers will be able to create an Alpha and Itanium version of their products off the same code base, Gorham said. And HP will sell Alpha-based systems for years to come.

Gorham estimates that about 400,000 servers still run OpenVMS. It's in use at about 2,000 hospitals.

Given those customers, and the fact that the OpenVMS business is profitable, it wasn't hard for HP to decide to keep it alive, Gorham said.

But at least one analyst questioned that assertion, saying that profitable or not, it probably wasn't an easy decision for the company to support the operating system.

"OpenVMS is a legacy play," a product that sells little outside the existing customer base, said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. "It was probably one of the closer calls HP had to make to answer the question what did it bring forward versus what it didn't."

Cluster champ
Solid technology helped sustain OpenVMS. One of its chief advantages is strong "clustering" capability, in which two or more systems are linked together so one can take over if another fails.

"Even today, it's probably better at clustering than most environments out there," Haff said. "OpenVMS' cachet is rock-solid reliability."

The quality of the clustering has meant customers could switch off a system, install new hardware and fire it back up again, all without the software skipping a beat, Haff said.

"We think...somewhere between 90 percent and 95 percent" of OpenVMS customers use its clustering features, Gorham said. "It has been one of the signature areas."

HP will support OpenVMS clusters built of both Alpha- and Itanium-based computers, an essential step to making the migration.

One challenge for OpenVMS in the future is staving off ever-improving systems that have more mainstream use: Windows, Unix and Linux. When computers ship in higher volumes, component costs decrease, software companies are more interested, developers are easier to find and support is easier to come by.

"Any time you design something that's general purpose," Haff said, "it will rarely be as good as the specialist. But over time in the computing industry, general purpose usually wins. General purpose usually becomes good enough."

Where Unix edged in on the VMS turf once it became good enough, Linux now is edging in on Unix. And Digital engineers are helping that happen. Clustering programmers from Digital, including Brian Stevens and Tim Burke, moved to a start-up called Mission Critical Linux and now are working at top Linux seller Red Hat. That clustering work now is part of Red Hat Advanced Server, said Stevens, now vice president of operating systems at Red Hat.

VMS was designed to support clustering from the ground up, but it's harder to retrofit such deep changes to an operating system, Haff said. Digital was gradually building clustering into its own version of Unix, improvements that eventually will make their way into HP's version, called HP-UX.

HP agrees that it's foolhardy to try to deny mainstream computing trends. Indeed, its OpenVMS strategy is largely a move to embrace the mainstream technology as much as possible, a move that began when VMS was renamed OpenVMS after it acquired the ability to run some Unix software.

More recently, OpenVMS was fitted with the ability to run Java programs. And for the latest technology, HP is bringing a version of the open-source Apache Software Foundation Web server software to OpenVMS, Gorham said.

The move to Itanium will keep OpenVMS closer to mainstream hardware, as well.

The Itanium move means HP's computer development cost will result in a single line of products that can run OpenVMS, Linux, Windows and HP-UX. (Separate Itanium hardware will run HP's fifth operating system, the ultra-high-end NonStop Kernel.)

By mid-2004, HP plans to sell OpenVMS servers with two, four, eight and possibly 16 processors, Gorham said. It plans 32-processor and 64-processor versions by late 2004, and, if all goes well, 128-processor Superdome support in 2005.

With the unified hardware foundation, HP believes it will be able to keep its OpenVMS competitive.

"The strategy for HP is to take advantage as much as possible of the standardized world," Gorham said.