an Education About Migration
Richard Gambrells HP 3000 transition will be a
journey crowded with lessons. The director of computing systems for
the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) might prefer to skip
some of the classes HP has mandated with its departure from the 3000
market. But he and his staff bear their course-load with good humor.
That might be because Gambrell has already been through a transition
toward HPs Unix, and knows how educational a migration can
UTC operates two K-Class HP systems, one HP
3000 Series 959 and an HP 9000 K570. Gambrells experience with
Unix goes back into the 1970s, so hes no neophyte on
HP-UXs commodity computing culture and extensive maintenance
needs. In other ways Gambrells customer site represents a
typical HP 3000 installation: plenty of custom-written code still
working on a 3000, running alongside packaged software on a Unix
Gambrells Unix experience predates his 3000 work.
His MPE exposure started in 1983. HP 3000 use at UTC goes back to
1976, and four years later the university deployed one of the first
programs anywhere which showed the requirements its students had
satisfied and what courses they needed to be take to graduate. But
other campuses in the UT system moved to Unix, and UTC went along
with the other schools to migrate its finances to the SCT Banner
application. UTC stopped its migration in 2000, staying flexible
enough to integrate its MPE systems with the parts of Banner it
managed to get implemented.
While seasoned IT veterans say there are no good
migrations just some that are better than others we
thought Gambrells UTC perspective with both MPE and Unix
experience could deliver fresh information about the existing wisdom
on migrating from custom code to packaged solutions on Unix. We spoke
with the manager who controls a $1 million IT budget within days of
the HPs multi-billion merger vote.
How extensively will UTC be using HPs solutions in
the future? Any new 3000s in your future?
We lease our systems, so weve a
revenue stream that lets us go on leasing something else. We will
probably replace our current 3000 before Oct. 2003, to have as long
of a life on the 3000 as we can afford. This gives us the maximum
time for the migration, but it also provides the strongest safety
net. We are not sure exactly what we will buy. It may be a new
N-Class or it may be a 989.
I see our migration path as a long thing, over five to 10
years. Im enthusiastic about the improvements a rewrite can
provide, although Im apprehensive about the work. Im not
one to say lets keep using the same stuff, because the same
stuff is pretty aged. Its been patched to death, and
theres design flaws. The good thing about the announcement is
that it provides a lever I can use to solve that problem. Before, I
couldnt find the right lever to free up the resources. It
wasnt a big problem before, they were just little problems.
The best way Ive thought about this is like turning the
clock back. Linux is the opportunity we saw in 1975. And the
equivalent of the cheap minicomputers we bought then from DEC and HP
are the commodity servers today.
Is commodity computing working for your organization? What
chance do you see of HP having a viable play in commodity computing
for your enterprise against IBM, Dell and Linux?
HP has got it right in terms of its forecast about
commodity computing. How to get there is the real challenge. I
dont believe they know how to do it, and its one of the
reasons they want to buy Compaq. But Compaq doesnt know how to
do it, either. HP probably knows how to do enterprise marketing
better than Compaq, though theyre not very good at that either,
compared to IBM.
Its definite that commodity servers are here. In the
modest-sized computing environments Im familiar with, its
all about commodity servers. But I dont care about a 1 percent
better performance for a price premium. Dell is our hardware vendor
of choice. Our internal goal is to move to Linux or Netware, both on
Intel servers, for our standard set of enterprise computing services
thats e-mail, file sharing, Web except for using
MPE for our custom database applications and Windows 2000 where
necessary for a specific application.
see no reason to buy HP-UX, Solaris, or IBMs AIX except if
required for a specific application and we have to include the cost
of these in the decision to choose an application.
already use Dell servers like Legos to build servers and buy servers
as we need them. We dont worry about hardware support at all,
except on unique equipment that we try hard not to use. We will
maintain a standby server that we can slap the right operating system
on from a CD then restore the data. Or we will maintain a
cold standby server fully configured and ready to replace
a dozen other systems in a few minutes. On these, we will automate
copying data over to it regularly to maintain readiness to take over.
For example, we could log database changes to it to be applied to the
last full database copy that was made last night.
Inexpensive servers that are powerful and reliable change the
way we run the datacenter. For us, a half-hour down time isnt
terrible and that allows us great flexibility to take advantage of
Do you believe a commodity aspect can be introduced to MPE
solutions, provided the hardware can become a commodity item?
Thats been my vision of the future
for MPE: to hitch the MPE wagon to the Linux parade. One of the
killers for supporting operating systems is device drivers, the
latest hardware. A lot of people are unsettled about going to Unix
for the same reasons the MPE users are unsettled: MPE offers complete
Instead of tying MPE to IA-64 in the traditional fashion,
CSY should have ported it to Linux, in effect. Provide an emulation
environment so you can bring your applications over easily, and a
business-oriented shell and file system and database the same
things MPE provides, maybe with a little more change than MPE
customers are used to.
Would you use an emulator for your MPE applications?
If sufficient performance and reliability can be
So will you be migrating your 3000 enterprise
servers in-house code to another platform?
Before November of 2001, we were actively pursuing a
five-year plan to consolidate on preferred system solutions using
Linux and Netware, with MPE for custom programming. Windows 2000
would be used only where necessary for the solution.
After HPs announcement, for our largest and most
important applications we are researching, scoping, and budgeting two
alternative projects, one a major rewrite and the other moving to a
commercial package with customization. We will present these project
alternatives to upper management for a decision before the end of the
year. A rewrite would likely be a rewrite in place on the
3000, but with a portable approach to the programming.
Eventually we must also plan alternatives for a half-dozen
smaller applications, or leave them on MPE, if OpenMPE is a success.
Some of these may be moved to commercial systems easily, but the more
custom ones can stay.
HP believes there are applications on other platforms
which its 3000 customers can use to replace custom apps. Whats
been your experience with that strategy?
For our largest application, we were
unable to move to a commercial package a couple of years ago, because
of its limitations and its quality problems, without extensive
customization. It didnt have the features that our existing
custom code had. We knew there were some unique policies we had which
wouldnt be covered. But there were larger chunks that
couldnt be covered. There were also software quality issues and
Its not easy to move to packaged applications,
partly because its a real culture change, for the IT staff as
well as the users youre supporting. In many cases, the
commercial applications expect a great deal more out of the end
users. System-wide, the university has migrated its accounting to
SAP. To enter a requisition people now have to go to about six
different screens, and ignore about half the fields on the screens.
Its actually quicker to sit at a typewriter and type in the
requisition on a paper form than to enter the stuff in the computer.
Not to mention the startup costs. That curve is pretty high, but it
does go away.
This changes the way you do things. Right now were
going through a big period of inefficiencies, and everything takes
longer. Fixing any mistake takes longer, and [outside vendors]
dont get paid on time anymore. A little pain for a little while
is okay. But weve been running the SAP financial stuff for a
UTC has a history of doing its own enhancements on its MPE
applications. What was it like becoming a user of packaged
Our vendor has thousands of enhancement requests. In
many cases they dont get fulfilled. They act on tens of them.
The backlog just grows and grows. Surely some of those are not worth
doing. But I can guarantee a big bunch of them would have beneficial
effects on existing customers.
Weve been a customer for four years; people
whove been customers for 10 years complain the same way we do.
This seems to me kind of typical. Theyre not really interested
in existing customers. Theyre interested in new customers, and
adding new products that we have to buy.
The other campuses picked this product first. We joined the
club. Gartner Group said that in our metropolitan university,
10,000-student niche, theres nobody else out there offering a
How much support do you want from HP for OpenMPEs
One hundred percent. Id really like to see HP
provide some funding for OpenMPE Inc., to be able to say theyll
be able to support its efforts. I dont know how to twist it so
HP benefits but thats the same problem HP has with all
of its Linux solutions, too.
But its like a paradox. I can understand the whole
decision why HP canceled the 3000 was the 3000 was no longer a good
bet. So how can HP support OpenMPE without talking out of both sides
of its mouth?
HP should come out with the terms and conditions and
pricing of licensing MPE in the future, however they want to do it.
They should have done that November 14, and let the third parties
have at it. Im a market-driven person. I would have said, let
the market decide. If the third parties have to merge together,
somebody will be clever enough.
Instead it comes across like theyre trying to
play Big Brother. I just dont think the CSY folks see it. I
understand that because if they did see it, they wouldnt
have cancelled the 3000.
How would your organization like OpenMPE to calculate
You might have a low-cost entry model, something kind
of flat, a per-machine cost. Id look at what some of the Open
Source people are doing. Were willing to pay Red Hat a couple
thousand dollars a year for a better version of Linux theyd
tested better. Id pay a few thousand a year for something that
makes it easier to do better business. Those are the kinds of dollars
that are going to be available.
pay HP about $5,000 a month now to support two boxes. This is a whole
different cost structure, but I dont really think were
getting the support were paying for, and havent for
years. Were paying for an elaborate level of support
thats barely needed.
Can a Linux-style model of support, where everyone is
responsible for contracting their own gurus, work for the 3000
environment youre maintaining?
Sure. We have to work a little to have contracts and
have resources identified that can help us if we need it. Its a
matter of learning the territory and keeping in touch. I expect
well spend some dollars here and there on time for expertise to
help us when we need it, and maybe a few dollars on Red Hats
Enterprise Linux. Well have lots of budget dollars available by
not paying the traditional hardware and software support costs.
For computing environments Im familiar with, Linux
is already better than HP-UX and Solaris. My Unix administrators
cant wait to migrate to Linux.
HP talks up its patches as a reason to stick with HP
support. Whats been your experience with patched systems in
other HP environments?
In the MPE world you can live without them very
nicely. In the HP-UX world, if youre clever in not going to the
latest thing, you can patch a system and be in pretty good shape.
Ill take MPE patches over HP-UX patches times 100.
has a very long way to go to get good quality HP-UX patches.
Its one of the most disappointing things. The other is fancy
hardware that causes trouble and causes trouble, and lots of patches
never fix it.
What service does a user group have to perform to be
useful for all of the 3000 customers of 2002 and 2003?
Provide forums for learning migration technical
topics as well as strong arm-twisting of HP to support OpenMPE. By
working in clear support of a future for MPE, some form of user group
will be needed in the future, but it will likely be scaled down some.
What about Oracle as a substitute for IMAGE? Whats
been your experience with Oracle on HP-UX?
Oracle and Unix can be reliable and powerful, if
configured well and with applications designed well by experts. The
complexity and deep skills needed to do this well are much more
demanding than in the 3000 environment. The 3000 mostly assumes it
knows what you want and in Unix and Oracle you have to pick and
choose the right choices to get the right
results. Thus it is easier to go wrong with Unix and Oracle,
but it is possible to have very good results, too.
It definitely takes more processor and disk IO power
for Oracle to match IMAGE performance, but these days for moderate to
small size databases that hardware power is available.
Is the PostgreSQL database going to play a part in your
application future? Are you after independent computing, where no
vendor can force this kind of transition on you again?
If we rewrite, we definitely are after vendor
free applications, but we may have to compromise some on tools
and utilities or libraries of code to obtain the productivity we
need. Id like our new code to be largely aimed on Posix, but
able to run well in MPE or Linux.
We would like to look at PostgreSQL closely. However, the
University of Tennessee has a excellent contract with Oracle, so we
may use that instead. However, we expect initially to use the SQL
part of IMAGE/SQL on MPE, then migrate if and when we need to as a
platform decision not driven by the code.
It doesnt really matter much, as long as you design
carefully for generic SQL and stay away from unique
features of each database.
What do you want HP to do with the resources that were
I wanted CSY to be sold, but reorganized into a lean
and mean company. Thats not going to happen, so Ill push
for as much support HP can find to move as much as possible to
OpenMPE. Staff is the hardest. The entire enterprise will have to be
scaled down to be the size of the market.
Whats your experience with the supportability of MPE
versus your Unix systems?
I could write a book on Unix war stories that would
frighten all MPE users. But the bottom line is that Unix has become
good enough and pretty darn good at that, particularly Linux. The
trick is knowing what youre doing, as with anything. But where
Unix and RDBMS go, there is a bunch more to know than with MPE
and these technologies will let you take a deep fall, whereas MPE
usually wont let you go too far wrong.
Would you rather pay a fee for a port of MPE to IA-64 than
a paying for a rewrite of your applications?
Well, Id love to have a MPE on IA-64 that I
could afford, but our applications will really benefit from a
I think the best thing would have been for CSY to
have taken Linux for IA-64 and developed a part emulator, part
integrated module for MPE applications to be ported to. This would
have gotten them largely out of the device driver business and they
could instead concentrate on a superior business shell and database
for Linux, with emulation support for backward compatibility and to
provide a transition for MPE users.
Even now, I think this is the best strategy for
success. Try to gain new converts from the mass of Linux users.
Theres going to be a lot of Digital VMS and IBM AS/400 users to
recruit one day, too. Now is the time to create a business
friendly application environment with a powerful and
simple-to-use database, one that runs on the Linux kernel.
The 3000 division has a reputation as being the most
customer-focused in HP. What should that reputation lead CSY to do
about supporting its customers through the Transition, whether they
migrate or Homestead?
It should have provided an out-of-the-box, canned HP
solution for continuing to run MPE applications. I know they wanted
to announce the death of the 3000 to the world, and I respect them
for that, but I think they should have committed to offering a
simple, mostly straight path to something, even HP-UX, if that was
the HP choice.
They didnt do that, and they still seem stuck in a
well study the choices and we will make the
decision mode that comes across as almost arrogant. If they
dont have a direction to send customers that is a real solution
unlike their free conversion to HP-UX if you have
a new N or A box then they should just name the stakes and the
limits, and the costs and the conditions, and just get the heck out
of the way.