OpenVMS Spinout A Possible Prelude To An IBM i Future?
August 11, 2014 Timothy Prickett Morgan
There are a few operating systems in the world that get both the tags “legacy” and “venerable” attached to them, one denoting a kind of dismissal or outright disdain and the other connoting respect and maybe even sometimes awe. IBM‘s MVS platform, which has also been called OS/390 and more recently known as z/OS, is certainly venerable and legacy if you don’t want to be accurate or generous, and so is OS/400, formerly known as i5/OS and now IBM i. And so is the VMS operating system for VAX, Alpha, and Itanium systems from Digital Equipment Corp, which is now branded OpenVMS and which is now controlled by Hewlett-Packard.
The fact that these platforms persist despite the intense competition from Windows, Linux, and sometimes Unix is nothing short of amazing and is a testament to the value that their customers derive from them. For a while there, it looked like OpenVMS was going to be sunsetted. But OpenVMS has just gotten a new lease of life and one that could portend a possible long-term future option for the IBM i operating system many years hence.
Although HP had officially said it would support OpenVMS 8.4, the current release that runs on “Tukwila” Itanium 9300 systems through at least 2020, the development and support operations for the operating system had been largely offshored to India and the company had not made a commitment to port OpenVMS to the “Poulson” Itanium 9500 chips. This is pretty remarkable, given the level of compatibility between the two Itanium processors, which have four and eight cores, respectively. There was no word at all what HP would do to support the future “Kittson” Itaniums, which were originally expected around this fall or so but Intel has not made a peep about them so far this year.
This did not look like a good situation for the thousands of OpenVMS customers. It is hard to say how many there are still left in the world, but the estimates I know about from about a decade ago pegged the base at somewhere between 100,000 and 400,000, and no one knows for sure. Randy Meyer, who is vice president and general manager of the Mission Critical Systems division at HP, which sells OpenVMS, NonStop, and HP-UX systems based on the Itanium, says merely that there are thousands of customers.
Just when it looked like all hope was lost, Nemonix Engineering, a VAX, Alpha, and Itanium distributor and reseller who has been keeping the OpenVMS proprietary machines running for customers for more than three decades, approached HP about licensing OpenVMS so it could not only support it, but extend it. And guess what? They came to financial terms and Nemomix got funding for the idea and has spun out a new software development and support company called VMS Software.
Nemonix and HP unveiled VMS Software while The Four Hundred as on summer break at the end of July, and it has become the exclusive developer of future releases and versions of the OpenVMS operating system. As it turns out, HP has most of the way done with a port of OpenVMS 8.4 to the Poulson Itanium platforms, which include the Integrity rx28000 i4 rack and Integrity BL8XX4 blade servers, and according to CEO Duane Harris, VMS Software will do the final driver development and certification testing for this port. It should be ready sometime in early 2015 if all goes well. Moving OpenVMS from processors with four to eight cores is not trivial, although OpenVMS has plenty of scalability. But as is the case with IBM i shops, most OpenVMS shops have fairly modest workloads and do not need more than a few cores and they tend to cluster for high availability and scalability.
The shared storage clustering with OpenVMS is in fact legendary and this is one of the reasons why VMS Software is so interested in keeping it going. That VMS Software thinks it can carve out a business selling and supporting OpenVMS is not a big deal, but the fact that it is scouring the New England states to hire anywhere from 70 to 100 software engineers to port OpenVMS from Itanium to X86 processors is a big deal. And VMS Software is looking at Power and ARM processors, too, because, as Harris put it, he does not want to limit the company to X86 chips. Considering that OpenVMS is popular in nuclear reactors, radar systems, nuclear submarines, and various other kinds of embedded uses such as in process controllers in chemical manufacturing because of its reliability and networking, porting to ARM and Power makes a certain amount of sense.
HP and Nemonix are not disclosing the financial details of the licensing deal they struck up for OpenVMS. As for funding, Nemonix went to Johan Gedde, one of the co-founders of Rocket Software. Rocket is based in Waltham, Massachusetts near some of the old DEC stomping grounds, and it has plenty of experience acquiring legacy IBM i and mainframe software vendors. It is not clear how much it will cost to port OpenVMS to X86 iron, or how long it will take, mainly because VMS Software doesn’t have the development team all put together yet. It stands to reason that VMS Software will tune OpenVMS to run on HP ProLiant servers, but that will not mean other iron will not supported. (Having a limited support matrix will be a necessity at first for VMS Software, as it is for all new software vendors. The wider the matrix, the more expensive the testing and the qualification.) The license between HP and VMS Software does not allow the latter company to open up the code, by the way.
For its part, HP is keeping the developers who have been working on the OpenVMS 8.4 update so they can continue to provide support services for that release on HP Integrity iron. HP will continue to sell support for this and earlier OpenVMS releases and will also be able to sell licenses and first and second level support for the VMS Software variants of OpenVMS when they come out. So customers can stick with HP, or go straight to VMS Software. Their choice. VMS Software will support each of its releases for five years under a standard support contract.
There has been no hint from IBM that it is not interested in expanding and supporting the IBM i operating system. As the Technology Refreshes that come out twice a year attest, Big Blue takes IBM i very seriously and keeps it running on current hardware in lockstep with AIX and Linux. I think that new versions and releases are relatively minimalist these days, but this is true of all operating systems. Including Windows and Linux. A lot of the scalability and stability issues have long-since been solved as they relate to the majority of customers on these platforms, and a lot of work is done on the corner cases.
But, that all said, the fact that HP let go of OpenVMS and found it a good home demonstrates that even megacorps with larger fish to fry sometimes see sense and do the right thing. It is pretty clear that HP was never going to port OpenVMS to X86 iron on its own, although, because of customer demand, it is porting the NonStop fault tolerant database and operating system to its high-end X86 machinery based on Intel‘s Xeon E7 processors. Both OpenVMS and NonStop customers tend to develop their own applications, although OpenVMS does have its own relational database, called Rdb, that has been under control of Oracle for the past two decades. (Digital sold it off when it needed some cash in the mid-1990s.) It seems very unlikely that Oracle will do a port of Rdb to the X86 version of OpenVMS. This might be one reason why VMS Software will be adding in a set of static and dynamic translators that allow code compiled for VAX, Alpha, and Itanium processors to run on X86 chips. It is reasonable to assume that VMS Software will only support Intel Xeon chips, given the low market share that Opteron chips from Advanced Micro Devices have these days.
I am not suggesting that IBM will get out of making and designing Power processors and systems based on it, or that the bulk of IBM i shops could not get by with a Power6, Power6+, Power7, or Power7+ processor. We all know that they could. But the way IBM is trying to get rid of hardware businesses these days and focusing on things like cognitive systems and big data, it makes you wonder. Stranger things have happened.
There are about 150,000 unique IBM i shops, and about a fifth of them are on Software Maintenance support and keep their iron relatively up to date. The OpenVMS base might be of an older vintage than this. It is good to know that HP and VMS Software have set an example that, should a day like that come to pass, there is a precedent to passing the baton to another company and keeping a viable and venerable legacy platform alive. There are always alternatives.
Not that we want OpenVMS competing against IBM i of course. But then again, such competition is better than the alternative, perhaps. IBM might want to dust off whatever OpenVMS-to-OS/400 porting tools it had.