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December 2001

Homesteaders break ground with talk of OpenMPE

HP, partners study extending operating system’s lifespan

After a few moments of reading the new 3000 writing on HP’s wall, a group of customers and partners want to alter it, talking with the HP 3000 division (CSY) about a future for the computer’s operating system outside HP.

Jon Backus, who operates the Tech Group HP 3000 outsourcing and programming supplier, launched a discussion group on the Internet to explore ways MPE might be preserved by its customers after HP steps away from it in a few years, a homesteading option.

Backus said the group has moved quickly to a consensus that Open Source methods — where software has a public license and is developed by anyone who wants to participate — don’t fit MPE very well.

“The feeling and desire is very much not Open Source,” Backus said of the discussions. “The vast majority feeling, which I completely agree with, is a migration of support and control of the entire MPE environment, including IMAGE, to a new entity. The source would continue to be closely controlled, similar to the way it is today.”

HP officials had lengthy discussions with the Interex MPE Forum members on the subject just after announcing end-of-support dates for the system. Despite HP’s announcement, companies with a long-time investment and experience in the platform appear determined to find a business model and technical resources for continuing the lifespan of the 3000 operating environment. One member of HP’s 3000 engineering staff is part of the HP team looking at how MPE/iX can continue to evolve beyond HP’s commitment.

Jeff Vance of the CSY lab has been acting as an advocate within HP this fall, examining the Open Source model of development for the 3000 community. Vance said that public, Open Source licensing probably wouldn’t be HP’s first step to extend MPE’s life.

“I’ve been trying to find business reasons why Open Source can be viable from a business and goodwill perspective,” Vance said. “At the same time, we don’t want to do Open Source and have it be not successful. We tend to be conservative, like a lot of our customers. My own gut feeling, based on knowing how our customers are and how we are, is that we’ll take a smaller step.”

Vance speculated that HP might “try a restricted license arrangement and test the waters that way. Maybe it will just be a subsystem, or just IMAGE, and see how that goes and how customers and partners respond to it. Maybe what people want is for CSY to figure out the right thing to do for the end of MPE — whether that’s Open Source, or some kind of limited license to empower a couple of third parties.”

In opening weeks of the OpenMPE movement, possibilities discussed were wide-ranging. Customers and engineers talked about what kind of hardware might be available for an MPE being developed beyond 2003. Support for a hobbyist license is popular among existing 3000 developers, a license for source code they could test and experiment with but couldn’t use to release their own versions. Other ideas include a free license to run MPE only on HP processors, protecting HP’s business.

One of the largest hurdles to continuing MPE’s life beyond 2006 is the scope of the engineering to get it onto the latest processors. Most advocates agree this means a move for MPE to the IA-64 Itanium processors, something HP promised to its customers in 1998, but which doesn’t fit HP’s current forecasts for the 3000 community.

The engineering requirements are great, according to Vance, based on the recent efforts to rewrite MPE’s IO for PCI-based 3000s. “The amount of engineering hours that went into getting MPE onto the A- and N-Classes was huge,” he said. “And we have inside connections to all the hardware engineers here. Trying to do that while not being inside HP, with far fewer people, is really going to be tough. And that’s just staying on PA-RISC. The effort is significantly larger in going to IA-64.”

One OpenMPE survey suggests the prospect of moving MPE outside HP might help stem customer migration away from HP’s processors. Backus reported on early results of a one-page survey measuring migration against an OpenMPE option. Before HP’s announcement, about 36 percent of those surveyed were planning to migrate. If OpenMPE happens, only 20 percent would migrate. Backus said, “This would imply that more companies would be inclined to stay with MPE if it was not controlled by HP.”

HP has considered putting its 3000 engineering outside of the hardware in years past, when customers asked for the IMAGE/SQL database on HP-UX. Such a move would have let the customers migrating now make an easier move to HP-UX, instead of stepping away from HP hardware altogether. Taking this same sort of distinctive step with OpenMPE could test the health of the 3000’s ecosystem, according to HP’s Vance.

“We could see if the ecosystem is still deteriorating at the rate we’ve determined, or if customers are willing to accept, say, IMAGE support from a third party,” he said. “That would be my guess at how we’ll get out — and that may lead later on to true Open Source.”

The OpenMPE activity will need to begin as soon as possible for any chance of success. Vance said that HP doesn’t have plans to keep its MPE enhancements engineering team together beyond October 2003. Such HP resources will be vital to making any new entity successful as it extends MPE’s life.

“It has to come soon,” Vance said of HP’s decision on how to help OpenMPE. “We have to make a pretty important decision, and we have to do it quickly. The longer we delay, the more the infrastructure decays.”


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