A 64-bit tonic
to turn back the years

We bought our own hot metal this month here at the NewsWire, something that definitely won’t fit on a desktop. It’s acting like a time machine for my partner Dottie Lentz, a woman who remembers driving fast when the oldies tunes were coming out of her car radio as new AM hits. Our purchase reminded me that speed can be a tonic when it’s in a new package, whether it’s a red convertible or IA-64-capable HP 3000s.

See, I never figured I’d be the owner of a fast red two-seater. People can be wrong when they look into the future, though. Some never figured HP would keep the 3000 around long enough to give it two migrations to RISC technology. I never dared hope that I would be covering both migrations.

New, fast hardware stories came into my life twice this month. There’s a turbo-charged convertible in my garage tonight. And now I’m telling 3000 customers about the second generation of MPE on RISC. HP shifts into overdrive with its second major tech refresh of the 3000. It must feel something like slapping the stick into fifth going 60 MPH.

What’s most exciting about it is the 3000 experience that the HP 3000 division brings to the task. Understand, this is about the only commercial computing division in the world that’s going to take its customers on their second successful migration to a new architecture, all without a recompile. That means no recompiling in well over 25 years of computing. Just new hardware, a tonic for anything that is aging, be it editors and publishers or older applications.

It’s entirely possible that a really old application you wrote in the late 1970s will run on new HP 3000s in the next century. And run a lot faster than it did when V-8 engines were the norm and gasoline was well under a dollar a gallon.

The Commercial Systems Division (CSY) still has engineers working there who helped bring the 3000 to its first RISC success. One of them is the general manager of the division. Another is leading the CSY lab. Others are system architects and lab managers. They remember the doubt and mystery of the last migration, and the lessons learned. It took longer than expected to bring 32-bit computing to MPE users. That will probably be true for IA-64, too. But this time around, the engineers at CSY can tell you, “Been there, done that.” Kind of like knowing how to work that five-speed stick-shift.

“Been there, done a RISC migration” isn’t a claim you’ll hear from anybody selling a Unix solution. Not even HP. When I reported on the first HP RISC migration in 1986, Unix systems were largely being used in scientific and engineering applications. HP didn’t have a Unix commercial customer base that amounted to much more than experimenters. HP’s business computing was just about entirely being done in MPE. It was CSY’s job to make sure the new 3000 hardware could keep those businesses on the road, not off in the pits lagging behind competitors who were already on 32-bit systems.

Given the benefit of the doubt by top HP management, CSY’s engineers created Compatibility Mode for HP 3000s, a little-celebrated miracle that let object code run on brand-new iron unmolested. The miracle was in the new software for the new iron, MPE XL. Somehow the wizards had worked a way to make a major migration as easy as restoring files onto the new system.

So when CSY’s lab leader Winston Prather says that’s the objective for the IA-64 3000s in the future, it’s much easier to believe this time. I was as skeptical as anybody that it could be done covering it 12 years ago. Indeed, a major slip in the project in the fall of 1986 left the top business and computer press wondering if HP would have to find new business computing customers. The existing ones couldn’t use the new hardware yet.

Back then, HP was in the position of proving that RISC was a sound choice for business computing. The headlines were full of puns like “HP makes RISC-y choice for new systems.” And when the 3000 division admitted that it wouldn’t be delivering those first Spectrum Project computers as promised in the fall of 1986, competitors like Digital crowed with glee. DEC even set up a hotel suite outside the Interex show in Detroit, where HP had to deliver the bad news of the delay. “Digital has it now,” trumpeted their ads, and the 3000 customers were wooed.

Inside the Interex hall, HP’s guru of RISC Joel Birnbaum faced the reporters’ questions. We circled the man like huns around a clergyman, and he stood on the carpet and explained the problems delaying PA-RISC “would yield to engineering discipline.” Birnbaum went back to the same labs and demanded straight answers on what was working and what wasn’t. And within a year, the HP 3000 was RISC-powered.

Meanwhile, Digital took four more years to restart its own RISC project. By the time the Alpha chips shipped, HP had stolen the RISC business thunder. Today Compaq has Digital, and HP has "it" now.

What they have is a 64-bit time machine, arriving through the brains and spirits of the engineers who cracked the RISC wall open for the first time for business customers. Some, long departed from CSY but still inside HP, are returning to help the 3000 use this next generation of RISC. Because if any computer system deserves a second helping of this kind of tonic, it’s the HP 3000. It’s the computer that proved businesses can run better after a compatible migration to hot hardware.

For me and my partner, our new red convertible is a symbol that wonderful things can happen if you’re patient. Dottie drove her redoubtable Camry for 10 years before trading in for our hot rag-top. The HP 3000 customers have driven RISC further than any other business customers in the industry, largely because MPE/iX has assimilated all the important technologies during that run. As customers you have been conservative, not needing to pioneer untested technologies too soon during that decade. Instead, you stuck with your investments.

Now HP is ready to reward that faith with a future longer than most of us could hope for. Sometime not too far into the next decade, you can put your foot down with the top down, using the same applications. It will be especially sweet if you were using the 3000 the last time you got a hardware tonic. “It was the most exciting time of my life,” said one engineer in CSY about the Spectrum project, “and now we get to do it again.” My partner said nearly the same thing about owning a red rag-top. New hardware can do that – make you remember why you wanted that speed.

– Ron Seybold