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February 2002

A Possible Roadmap to OpenMPE

With this issue we launch OpenMike, a guest editorial space and talking point for the 3000 community to express its views. In an era where emotion and analysis run abreast for the community’s attention, we want OpenMike to be your forum for the way you feel about the future and what you believe is important to the 3000 community. Send your contributions of less than 1,500 words to us for consideration at editor@3000newswire.com.

By Wirt Atmar

I believe there is a consensus building to not only save MPE, but to expand its use as well. Let me say at the outset that I am wholly opposed to MPE being owned by any single vendor or company. Rather, I think that the only stable way to keep MPE alive over the long-term is to have it owned by its users, just as United Airlines is an employee-owned organization, or a credit union is member-owned, or a mutual assurance company is owned by those insured. Not only do such organizations tend to be more stable, they also tend to be more user-responsive, and thus in the long-run tend to prosper better.

The great majority of MPE users have no need to have MPE’s source on hand. Rather I see the real value in having MPE safely in the hands of a “New CSY,” completely independent of HP, financed by the user community itself, although it may be composed of some to many of the people who now work for HP’s CSY. For lack of a better term, I’ll call this new organization NCSY, but I’m sure a much better name can be chosen later.

In the model that I believe will work best, MPE will be distributed without license. Anyone would either be able to download MPE from a server at no cost, or order an installation CD for $100 and install it on as many machines as they care to. All documentation would be on the Web, essentially as it is now. But if you wanted to be able to ask questions, your support costs would be perhaps $1,000/year. For that payment, one designated person in your organization would be allowed to call in for support. While you would be free to put MPE on as many systems as you cared to, support would be $1,000/person per year.

However, when you’d pay support, you would be paying more than just for support. Your yearly payments would also be your partnership dues in a limited-liability company. You would be a full voting partner of the organization.

All of the finances of the LLC would be publicly posted on a Web page, including all income, the list of members, and all expenses, including all salaries. Every nickel would be open and available for inspection by anyone, at any time. The intention of the NCSY is not to generate massive profits for its owners, but rather to provide a very stable operating base for MPE and its follow-on improvements.

MPE would be ported to the Intel platform, perhaps initially to 32-bit and only later as 64-bit. But the “port” wouldn’t be accomplished by recompilation of the massive amount of code that represents MPE, in all of its various languages, but rather through the construction of a PA-RISC emulator/translator layer that would perhaps operate on top of the Linux kernel. Such a design would not be able to obtain all of the performance that native code could achieve, but it would be by far the simplest and most reliable method to move MPE to Intel. Indeed, this is the only practicable way to get MPE onto an Intel platform in less than a year.

MPE development would continue on PA-RISC machinery, just as it is now. Indeed, it may be that all MPE development will continue to be done only on PA-RISC for the next 25 years. But simultaneous with that HP’s proposed development in their current two-year roadmap, an emulator/translator would also be developed, outside of HP, essentially beginning now. The immediate advantage of working on a translator/emulator is that HP/CSY can independently continue to improve MPE over the next two years while the emulator/translator is being developed. At any point in the future, the then-current version of the MPE object code could be moved over and run under the emulator.

Lower costs, higher quality

While some mainframe operating systems have been emulated on Intel PCs as “programmers’ toys,” more out of nostalgia than anything else, the intention of OpenMPE would be anything but frivolous. Rather, it would be to generate a completely serious, fully functional and highly competitive environment for application development. While such development may not aim at the “enterprise-level” customer for several to many years into the future, the HP 3000’s traditional users have been among $5- to $50-million/year gross revenue companies or as departmental computers in larger companies. In that, nothing will change.

Ultimately, all technologies eventually become simple and reliable, requiring no mechanics constantly hovering over the machinery to keep it operational. It happened with color television sets, Xerox machines, and it will happen with commercial computing platforms. In that regard, the HP 3000 is today more like what all computers must become in the future than any other competing platform currently manufactured.

A license-free MPE, coupled with very low-cost hardware, offers several distinct advantages. One is the adoption of an Army-like method of hardware repair. The Army designates three levels of repair: field, depot and factory. At the field level, if your radar van breaks down, you simply drive up another one and return the defective one to the depot, where major components are unscrewed, unplugged and replaced. It’s only at the factory level that individual resistors and ICs are replaced, and there not so much to repair the units for return to service but to understand the nature of the failures that are being experienced.

The newest Dell server I bought was $448, which is less expensive than I’ve paid in the past for some HP cabling. At these prices, you don’t bother repairing the units. You simply replace them, just as you do nowadays with color televisions and Xerox machines.

But inexpensive hardware should not be confused with unreliable hardware. Indeed, we’ve seen no difference in overall reliability of our Dell servers as compared to our HP 3000s. The new CSY would undoubtedly recommend and certify certain hardware configurations, but if the virtualization of the MPE emulation is done well enough, the rules could become nothing more than, “If Linux runs on it, so will MPE.”

The second great advantage of very low-cost hardware and free licensing is that it will get MPE back into schools — not only universities but also high schools and trade schools as well. Price is the single entry barrier to getting something used and taught in a school environment. A true commercial operating system of MPE’s quality, available at virtually no cost, would be a tremendous motivator to having MPE rigorously taught again in university environments, especially if it has an active development organization behind it.

Keeping costs significantly above the norm, as MPE has been over the last decade, has caused an ever-increasing downward spiral in use and users. Keeping costs below the norm and maintaining a quality much better than expected should very pronouncedly promote quite the opposite response.

With HP’s help

Will HP cooperate? This is the final question, and the most important. In this model, the source is not being given out to everyone, willy-nilly. It isn’t being able to see the source code that is important in this model. It’s simply critical that the user community knows soon that someone competent is diligently working on their behalf.

But this model is also in HP’s interest. The level of user anger that exists over this decision is deeper than CSY believes it to be. I do not consider class-action lawsuits to be out of the question. However, if one or two years’ worth of this effort yields nothing, much of the anger towards HP will be blunted. Quite to contrary: if HP/CSY actively and generously aids in the development of an Intel-based emulator, the amount of goodwill that act will generate will go a long way toward repairing the deep rift that now exists.

Will HP cooperate? I believe so. I spoke with one of the senior management people at CSY at some length. In regard to OpenMPE, he said, “Why do people automatically assume that we won’t cooperate? Why would we want to do any harm to MPE?” Based on that statement, I think everything else is eminently feasible.

Wirt Atmar is president of AICS Research, Inc., an HP 3000 software supplier offering the QueryCalc reporting application and QCTerm terminal emulator. He was one of the primary organizers of the World’s Largest Poster Project in 1996, a stunt to promote the HP 3000 to Hewlett-Packard managers attending that year’s Interex North American user conference, and has offered MPE applications for more than 25 years. 

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