|Lessons Learned Through Application
Duane Percox got his 3000 higher education around
applications, specifically those for the education administration
market. The founding partner of software vendor Quintessential School
Systems, Percox has been crafting 3000 applications, and companies
which offer them, since the early 1980s, when he was creating K-12
apps for Pertaine Systems in California. He started his 3000 career
porting a COBOL payroll application to the platform in 1979. The
system got popular with school agencies in California, and he became
a consultant and then part owner of Carter-Pertaine Inc. In 1990
Percox launched QSS, a new company founded to service Carter-Pertain
customers in the Western US. In the last year hes become a
member of the MPE Forum, an executive steering committee of Interex
devoted to improving the systems prospects in training and
Percox has a good resume of both business and
technical accomplishments in the 3000 market, experience common to
successful long-term suppliers for the system. Besides leading a
reseller authorized to sell new e3000s, Percox also has an affinity
for software architecture. This spring at the SIG3000 roundtable
meetings, he wondered aloud about the fundamental value proposition
of the software tied to the 3000 and how it might be updated
to keep the system in step with offerings from Unix and Windows,
places where applications are often created these days. In the last
year his firm also closed a deal to take on more e3000 customers from
Arley Carters Carter-Pertaine Systems, another K-12 ISV, as a
separate entity of the Quintessential School Systems business
operations. Percoxs firm extended the QSS investment in the
e3000, to more than 110 companies installed, at the same time that he
raised questions about the development tools and began supplying help
to improve the platforms offerings. We asked him about what
needs to appear to revitalize the 3000 as an applications platform,
and where he sees the market headed in the years to come.
QSS recently got into the 3000 market even deeper by taking
on the customers of Carter-Pertaine, whose code you license in your
own QSS applications. Why did you take on more e3000 responsibility,
and what can we infer about the prospects of the market from your
We did it for a couple of reasons. One, Arley Carter
wanted to retire. And just out of selfish reasons we didnt want
the company to fall into someone elses hands, since were
so tightly linked. Secondarily, theyve got some good technology
theyve developed in the student information system in their
ViSTA product. And they have a lot of people who know the 3000.
Were committed to the 3000 market, and
arent actively developing solutions that would be running off
of the 3000. We could have taken that same money and bought a
software company thats got an NT, SQL Server kind of solution.
But our focus has always been installed base first, new business
second. That means we dont always make HP happy, because
were not as aggressive chasing new business as their marketing
department might want. But we have a much better chance of a
prospective new customer being successful when getting a reference.
In fact, we rarely qualify our references. We just show our list of
customers. Its not to say we dont have our problems,
because no ones perfect; were talking software here, and
were talking people.
If you think about it, our focus on the installed
base is another good reason to acquire that stock. A number of the
customers he serves are customers which Pertaine Systems sold. We
know those people and have talked to them since the purchase
and its like old home week. QSS has customers we sold in 1982.
This is a relationship business.
Is it more so in the K-12 world? Do people hang on longer
in their organization?
In a lot of them, the individuals have changed. But
schools by definition are conservative, and change is hard and
expensive. You need to be motivated for change, so we try to do our
best to keep them from being motivated for change. We also have a
number of customers who are not technical, and the 3000 works well
with that market because you can just turn it on and let it
How essential are new applications to the health of the 3000
community? If a new K-12 application provider were to enter the
market from the AS/400 world, would you see it as a good thing for
the platform, even if it made life complicated for you as a K-12
Are you asking me to put on my advocate hat on one
hand, and my business ownership on the other hand? It makes sense
generally that the more applications you have for a platform, the
more traction the platform has. It would be great to have more
applications on the 3000, even if they were competing applications.
That Im not so worried about.
But I have to tell you that your example is probably
not one which would occur. Most AS/400 people have much larger
installed base, and a better support network from IBM as far as their
developer support. Im not sure they would be looking to the
3000 as a market play. There isnt enough of a platform
differentiation between an AS/400 and an HP 3000 for them to switch.
Its a lateral move.
So are we then talking about a Wang, a Data General, a Prime
software vendor? Whos left to join the 3000?
We just sold to somebody who was on a Prime system.
It was a package we used to compete against in the 1980s, and they
went out of business and a bank took them over. The bank was then
running the software company, and we sold our software to the school
system, and theyre going to buy an N-Class.
I think its been too long since those systems
went under for there to be anybody to move to the 3000. If I was a
vendor on those platforms, I would choose NT before Id choose
anything. Its size of the market. The reason we still like the
3000 is that it has a breadth of performance thats binary
compatible such that I can put a 3000 in for a small school
agency, and I can put a big 3000 in for a humongous school agency,
and I dont have to worry about performance issues related to
the small vs. high end. The only issue is price.
In the olden days, a low-end HP 3000 couldnt
compete against a VAX. That was solved many years ago. With IMAGE and
a reasonably well-crafted application you can still get a fair number
of users on that size system.
Architecture as it relates to applications has been central
to the messages youve given at the Solutions Symposiums in the
last two years. What kind of a difference can a good application
architecture make to a 3000 customer?
The way you craft your application determines how
easy it is to write for your application. This determines how
successful you are in deploying your application. This is one of the
reasons IMAGE and VPlus were so important to the 3000. These were
built-in tools that came on every box. They allowed developers of not
any great brainpower to craft reasonable applications without having
to write all that stuff on their own. That allowed a much greater
wealth of programmer-analysts to develop applications.
At SIG3000 you talked about a new value proposition for 3000,
something as compelling as the VPlus and IMAGE bundled with every
system in the late 1970s. Why is this important, does it need to be
updated, and what would you like to see on the box?
What I was trying to get at is the feel, with IMAGE
and VPlus, of using those tools to craft an application. Those
applications were fine for their day. Now I want to develop a
distributed application. Theres horsepower sitting all over the
enterprise in Windows desktops. I want to do my screen IO in Visual
Basic, but I still want all my server stuff to be resident on the
3000. It would be really nice if HP had taken a leadership role in
figuring out a solution for the application developer the ones
who arent going to be spending all their time figuring out
sockets, and who dont have time to evaluate hundreds of
different tool kits and say, We can make the 3000
operate in a distributed environment. Heres a way to do
distributed development that will be deployable and it will allow you
to develop easily in that world.
What was raised at SIG3000 was that the current world
is way more complicated than that old world. I agree the solutions
are going to be more complicated than they used to be. But relative
to how complicated it is to do [distributed computing] on your own,
it would still be simpler for HP to offer a solution.
Is there a need for a new common interface for the 3000?
HPs fallen back on too many to choose in defending
why its not advocating a VPlus replacement. Is its argument
I understand their position on that. But if you make
it easy to tie the client and the server together, then its a
You could have written your own screen handler back
then, but you had something called VPlus. You used it because it was
on every box. As a software developer I didnt have to worry
about it, and this is a beautiful thing for a software vendor in
deployment. Its one of the reasons Microsoft is winning the
desktop battle: Developers for Windows know a certain functionality
will exist on every desktop. Im saying, why cant we have
the same thing on the 3000? Why cant I have a set of tools that
lets your average COBOL developer develop applications that can work
in a distributed environment more easily than having to figure
it all out on their own? In the olden days, HP took a reasonable
leadership position in that. There isnt anybody championing
that in HP anymore, because HP doesnt have a need for it. But
the need still exists.
On MPE you have to be more creative in how you do the
architecture of your application. It would be really cool if there
was a way for me to create a server, and when it ran the operating
system knew about servers, and those servers could exist in their own
space, but they would be linked to a listener and wouldnt have
that job-session problem. There are ways to architect around that,
but you have to know what youre doing. It would be much better
if it was a fundamental execution model of the 3000.
I also said at SIG3000 it would be great if there was
a transaction bus that let you glue your server code to your client
code. So that transactions could be sent from clients to servers
without you having to manage that yourself. Its not a trivial
thing to do. But it has merit. Some would argue that Java is
Distributed computing has great potential for the 3000 base,
from what I hear you saying. You advocated HPs adoption of
CORBA for this on the 3000 years ago, but not much has happened.
Whats the upshot of this lack of embrace of an object standard
for the platform?
My idea of CORBA is that it gave me the ability to
host a distributed object or application that could talk to a client
in an industry-standard way. I was more interested at the time in
having HP consider and adopt emerging technology, to show the box was
a player in the current world. It wasnt necessarily that I had
to have that functionality. I would have used it. I dont think
its a big deal for the average customer. Thats why
Im always a proponent for the technologies like Java to exist
on the 3000, as a good retention policy. Im not quite sure that
it plays out as an attraction policy. If you have a Java Virtual
Machine running on the 3000, does that mean you are going to have
more people targeting the 3000 for applications?
Is there value in Java in application development on the
3000? Or is its value in another area?
Long term, or now? I dont think its there
yet. I believe it has potential long term, and were monitoring
that. Its a double-edged sword for CSY. What is today a
customer retention strategy then allows the customer to evolve their
application to an arena to allow their application to run on someone
elses box. If CSY does not provide boxes of the same
performance as competing boxes, then whats to stop that
customer from migrating to a non-3000 solution? As you attract your
customers to develop into these kinds of tool sets, you eliminate
more and more of the value added of the platform.
The most highly touted Java tool these days seems to be
Enhydra. What difference is Enhydra going to make to the average HP
3000 shop? HPs Mike Yawn described it as the killer app for
Java on the 3000.
The average 3000 shop isnt going to be doing Enhydra
stuff. It doesnt mean its bad to have Enhydra on the
3000. Mike Yawn wants people to run Java apps on the 3000, and
Enhydra is a Java app. From his perspective, it is a killer
app, because it uses the Java virtual machine. But why would I run
Enhydra on an e3000 when its publicly known that an
AS/400s Java Virtual Machine is faster? If I was just looking
at platforms, why would I choose the 3000? Id have to already
have one. Enhydra is a retention strategy, not an attraction
Is there something about the 3000 still remaining which makes
it a better choice than other platforms?
It depends on what you want to do. Comparing the 3000
to the AS/400 as a COBOL database application environment, there are
compelling reasons for both. The issue for a software vendor would be
what you know. If I were comparing the 3000 to NT, the big
differentiation is that you have a box in the 3000 that knows how to
play in the enterprise. While they tout NT as enterprise, it really
has more of a departmental focus. If I have 2,000 to 5,000 people
banging against a database server, Im going to be a lot more
comfortable with it being a 3000 than being NT.
We run a lot of NT servers at QSS. They run fine, but
we are regularly rebooting them, doing things with them we dont
have to do with the 3000. It still requires more fiddling than the
HP says its A-Class is going to remain at its current speed
to protect the value of the N-Class. Is there a way for you to sell
an A-Class system to a new prospect in its current configuration?
We have customers that have 9x7s and are buying
A500s. An A400 is 65 percent faster than a 918, and you get an
unlimited user license. From my perspective, if theyre a small
site and look at the dollars, its a no-brainer. I do agree
there has to be a range of solutions in a platform. I believe
its important to draw a distinction between the CSY business
model and the 9000 business model. They sell a lot more boxes on the
9000 side, because theyre used for more different things.
Its a different market over there. Theyre
competing against Sun and SGI, not against the AS/400. The N-Class
equivalent boxes are in the same processor range as the e3000 models.
Its unfair to compare the two, because theyre different
business models. The profit margins have to be higher at CSY for each
system, because theyre not selling as many. I dont
believe theyd sell more A-Class systems if they were faster. I
just think it would cannibalize their higher performing systems.
Please comment on a pipe dream: user-maintained MPE, in Open
Source, to deliver enhancements for the e3000.
Thats an interesting question, because the Open
Source movement in Linux and databases has been interesting to watch.
As a software vendor were trying to keep abreast of the
thinking in the industry. The concern I have as an application vendor
is that if I had any Open Source tool I was depending on, I would
have to add engineers whose sole responsibility was to manage our
build and distribution of that tool within the customer base. If you
start talking about an operating system that is as feature-rich and
robust as MPE, it would be difficult for us to find that being
In other words, Im not sure we would get the
value we want out of the 3000 its stable and
predictable, and it continues to evolve in a reasonable way.
Thats my application vendor hat. If I was a tool vendor or I
was hacking around in code or something, it would be cool. But
Im not sure I want to download or ever get a distribution of
Open Source MPE and try to build it, and actually have my customers
rely on it because Im pretty familiar with my skill set
as it relates to operating system development, and that would scare
the bejesus out of me.
Many of the utilities for the 3000 now fall into that Open
Source category. Whats to become of things like Samba, PHP, Gnu
C++ and sendmail without HPs support of them?
These are tools you can use to make your life easier
for developing on the platform, not the OS itself or the fundamental
database. Those kinds of things are a little different. It sounds
like a business opportunity, but not for HP. Why doesnt someone
If were talking stuff thats layered, like
PHP, Samba, the Gnu compiler collection, those things can be ported
to the 3000 and people should be willing to support them
either as a collective effort or some business model a la Red Hat.
But people are discovering its hard to make money in that
world. There are a lot of Linux vendors whose stock is selling for
under a dollar.
How has selling the 3000 to new prospects changed for your
company over the past three years, from pre-Y2K to today? What are
the factors you face in making new sales for the box?
I could answer the question going back five years. In
a couple of isolated cases we got Y2K business. But sales is not a
significant part of our business. Our revenue model is more support
and service than it is sales. We find it easier to justify the 3000
now than five years ago, because of all the tools that have been
ported to the 3000. It makes a world of difference to tell someone
Apache runs on the 3000. That blesses the platform. It justifies the
platform is not a thing that nobodys doing any work for
The marketplace we work in is different than the
shrink-wrap marketplace most people think of when they talk software.
The sales cycle is very long for school agencies. We have two new
customers implementing entry-level N-Class boxes, and both of them
have had sales visits going back close to two years. Thats why
its good in our business not to depend on sales, because
its easy to have good prospective customers that just drag on
in the sales cycle. You have to build your business around being in
business even if you sell nothing.
How much influence do you believe an installed base of
perhaps 10,000 companies have on a $50 billion company like HP?
My experience as a software vendor and someone active
in the Interex user community is there is a role to play in customer
advocacy as it relates to influencing your vendor. The more of those
customers actively involved in communicating needs and desires to the
vendor, the harder it is for the vendor not to pay attention.
Its really more of an issue of making sure theres not
apathy, and those customers are actually getting involved.
Thats why I spend the time with MPE Forum.
Are you talking about apathy on HPs part, as well as
the 3000 customers?
I find it incredibly foolish that HP ships boxes to
customers without some kind of customer card you turn in. So you
register your system and they know who their customers are. I find it
entirely amazing that I had to bring this up to HP at a roundtable,
and HP would reply, Wow, thats a good idea. HP
probably has a warehouse of calculators theyd love to give away
as prizes in exchange for the cards. This comes under the heading of
knowing your customer.