Branching out from the 3000s home page
links the HP 3000 to new technology from a home page of history. The
president of Robelle Consulting is celebrating his 20th year at the
British Columbia-based supplier of utilities and programming tools,
and counts his HP 3000 background well into the 1970s. Greer joined
Robelles founder Bob Green in 1979 after the two had worked
together on a consulting assignment. Greer began leading
Robelles corporate direction several years ago once Green moved
to a development site on a tiny Caribbean island. The products from
these legendary programmers that made the company, Greers
Suprtool and Greens Qedit, remain at the head of Robelles
expanding lineup after close to 20 years in the field.
could only point to its two flagships, its place in the 3000
community would be assured, with more than 6,000 HP servers around
the world running its products. But Greer has helped the company
branch out. Robelle was the first HP 3000 vendor to have a home page
on what was called the World Wide Web in 1994, a result of
Greers explorations of the Internet; its Whats Up
Documentation newsletter and SMUG glossary and guidebook made early
appearances on the Web, part of a Robelle tradition of publishing.
The company has a Windows presence in the programming editor market
with Qedit for Windows, which counts Greer as its chief architect.
Robelle still supports the products it created in the 1980s to help
programmers in a next-bench fashion: Prose for document printing,
Xpress for e-mail; and Howmessy for database maintenance.
the company has been looking in new directions, over the last few
years expanding its knowledge and products to the HP 9000 and Windows
markets. Its early experience with the Web and Windows NT will be
taking Robelle toward Java solutions and perhaps XML, according to a
new corporate press kit. Weve begun to see Robelle as a bridge
company for HP 3000 customers, with roots deep in MPE but branches
reaching toward other platforms and the latest technologies. It has
maintained its grounding in the 3000 while probing the breaking edge
of automated development. We asked Greer how a company of only 20
people can do so much, dancing into new technology while staying
close to the MPE partners that brought it onto the floor.
Robelle has branched out into platforms outside of the
HP 3000. Why, and what do you do to keep as sharp about MPE as a
company thats completely focused on the HP 3000?
We have a lot of
people with a lot of experience in MPE, and you have a lot of
customers who are paying you support dollars to do a good job for
them. That gives you lots of capability to look after them and lots
of desire to stay focused.
3000s dont live in isolated places, cut off from the rest of
the world. We have a lot of cross-platform training, which actually
makes you better. Our people with MPE experience now have a lot of
Unix experience, network experience. Most of that stuff comes full
circle because of the cross-platform stuff. I think youre
better serving your installed base by having a broader base to draw
from. To be totally focused on the HP 3000 means you have to learning
these other [technologies] anyway. We can learn it really well
because were on the sharp end of the stick, supporting
customers who are on those platforms, and some who are running
Youve been in the Unix marketplace as well as 3000
shops for several years. Does it remain more complex to support your
customers in non-3000 environments?
the way Unix was designed. You have a lot of human-readable ASCII
configuration files, so theyre pretty easy to change. On the
other hand, theyre pretty easy to read, and figure out
whats going on. Our experience is so broad now that its
hard to know whats more complex. In figuring out stuff for
Qedit for Windows I wouldnt say MPE was necessarily easier. In
some aspects it was more difficult, because it didnt use
It still seems in
talking to people that running large, high-end Unix systems with
large numbers of users and big databases is still much more difficult
than doing it similarly on a 3000.
your 3000 customers tend to rely on you to help them understand
technologies on other platforms?
usually a whole team [at a customers site] to drive new
platform choices. I feel like 3000 people are almost not encouraged
to come over; theyre told, Were the Unix experts,
and well handle this. The 3000 people arent asking
us for this advice because theyre not having to do it.
How do you keep up a broad base of products, including
several older ones, with a staff of your size?
foremost is good software engineering and a lot of automated
processes. Every weekend a single jobstream launches on our 3000 and
by the time its finished on Monday morning, weve rebuilt
every line of every product and run every regression test suite for
We use a markup
language to make sure theres no errors in the documentation
markup. We do that all for three platforms. The 3000 is still the
master controller, but it triggers off events that happen on our Unix
and NT systems. That jobstream reschedules itself for the next
That has a big
impact on our ability to keep delivering stuff. A lot of our stuff
sits on top of libraries, and if you change anything in the
libraries, our processes catch any problems like unintended side
effects. When we change Speedemon to support jumbo datasets, its not
that HowMessy will absolutely be ready to go, but it probably will
be. The underlying core technology is ready.
We use a
single-source base for the Unix and MPE offerings. Qedit for the most
part doesnt know what platform its on; it calls a whole
virtual layer. We went to object-oriented stuff before it had really
caught on. Its a philosophy.
some things, and our bonus products we dont enhance very much.
We decided DBAudit fit better with a database vendor, so we
negotiated a deal where Bradmark now owns that product. Xpress, our
mail package, we wrote in 1984 because Bob and I worked at home and
found the telephone a huge intrusion. When we saw the whole Internet
thing taking off, we de-emphasized it and lowered the maintenance
price. Im still using Xpress, but before the end of the year of
the year I will have switched.
Ever been tempted to do a product that didnt have
anything to do with the 3000?
Not so far, but I
wouldnt rule it out categorically. Im spending most of my
time doing market research now, getting closer to our customers and
looking for new business line ideas.
Youre using Windows Scripting Host to release one
version per month of Qedit for Windows. What promise does this tool
hold for the HP 3000 developer?
I see its promise
in the process automation area. You see messages on the Internet now
that ask How do I get my data out of the 3000 and into an Excel
spreadsheet? WSH wont answer all the back-end stuff; you
have to get it into a format that Excel will be happy with. You can
do that with our product line, or with DataExpress and others. For
those that want to grow their own, you finally have a scripting tool
that will let you automate all that interface. Before, it was hit and
miss, with DOS batch files or program it in Visual Basic, using VB to
do little automated downloads into Excel. WSH is a nice little
scripting language that lets you program any OLE automation object,
and do it cheaply. Its zero cost, bundled into Windows 98 or
you can download it off the Microsoft Web site. Think of them like
jobstreams, except theyre object-oriented and youre going
to have to learn something VBscript-like or Jscript-like.
We also do a lot
of teaming and design of projects through Web pages. We have several
huge internal Web sites with thousands of documents. We let team
members know that updated scripts are on a Web page, so we share the
same script, and use the same build process for getting the source
code onto our PCs. You dont tend to make too many mistakes,
because youre using a script to do a lot of the work, and the
stuff thats manual is documented, and its not too many
Robelle was an early adopter of the Web, perhaps one of
the first in the 3000 community. Why did you climb on board so early?
Did you know even in 1994 that it would change the way we
We went live in
June 1994. Id spent six months that year researching the
Internet open systems space. Id been running into things called
Gopher and Archie, and you could never find what you needed. We had a
9600-baud modem that was our connection to the net, and
Im trying to learn more, and I stumbled onto the Web stuff. At
that time we were the 80,000th officially registered Web site. I
could see after struggling with Archie, just for finding things and
linking things together, this was pretty neat stuff. A lot of my
browsing was done with the [character-mode] Lynx browser, and that
bias has carried through. We tend to be an any-browser kind of
company, so our Web site is equally accessible through
envision all the change from the Web. The change weve seen so
far is minor compared to the change well see in the next five
to 10 years. For businesses in general, its like the Industrial
Revolution compressed into 20 years. You have an entire culture
moving from a mechanization age to an information age, and the Web is
going to be one of the big enablers of that to happen. How a
particular piece of technology, like the 3000, is going to fit in
that, I dont think we know. The 3000 has to interoperate in a
Web world. People have been talking about Web-enabling. Thats
the minor stuff. I dont have a clear vision of where its
going to go, but I wouldnt be surprised if the Web is so
standardized that it brings the promise of things like computers
talking to computers a lot more.
what kind of scenario would you recommend that a customer use an HP
3000 as their Web server for Internet service? For intranet
youre going to go with as your application development
environment will help decide what your back end or intermediate
solution could be. Its real important that Posix is [on the
3000], and so much of the open systems stuff is successfully ported
to the 3000. A lot of the new stuff is still coming from the open
systems space, so it has a good chance of running on the 3000: Perl,
Apache, Java. And CSY [the 3000 division] is leading in a lot of
these things. I dont think that HP-UX is bundling Java, for
example. CSY went for it, and said they will.
We use a whole
variety of Web servers: A Windows NT server for in-office staff. Our
Unix machine is our public Web server. Our 3000 runs as a Web server,
because its the fastest way for us to publish certain internal
information thats in databases. That interfaces to our internal
Service Request system.
What good will
Java be to the HP 3000 customer base over the next year, now that HP
is shipping a supported version of it with the operating
It is going to be more important to the platform, but I cant answer about the next 12 months. It sends really strong signals that its bundled with the operating system and supported by HP. Its just another piece of the puzzle. Youve also got CSYs Visage initiative for a recommended strategy for client-server, and thats Java-based. Java is an enabling technology.
does XML have to offer for the HP 3000 database administrator or
application developer? Will you have a product that uses XML in some
I think its
too early for XML. You know its going to be successful because
Microsofts embraced it. Im not certain I see it providing
something to the database administrator they dont already have.
I dont envision it being a mainstream technology outside of
what Microsoft will do with it. When Microsoft takes on something and
makes it a standard, it tends to affect everybodys life whether
you want it to or not. The problem is the browser deployment problem;
Microsoft has put it in Explorer 5, but thats not what most
people have. In terms of public deployment of XML, thats
whats going to hold it back. What I like about it is that
unlike HTML, in XML you either have a valid document or you
dont. Sixty percent of Explorer is to handle invalid HTML code,
and guess what to do with it.
You use the word proprietary when defining the HP 3000
operating system and database. Why is it important to describe them
Im doing a
lot more work with outside consultants, people who have never heard
of Robelle or the 3000. When you say proprietary HP 3000, it helps
them put a little box and what kind of market were in.
Its a fact, like the proprietary AS/400. The world is moving to
one of the most proprietary platforms that ever existed, Microsoft
I think its
important to address the issue that people want solutions. Tools
allow you to do huge amounts of customization exactly for your
environment. We hope down the road there will be a Smith-Gardner
Qedit for Windows scripting language part of our Web site, or Amisys
or Summit or MANMAN. That is one of the ways were addressing
the fact that customers say they want solutions, but were in
the tools business.
you find it frustrating that your companys legacy and legend
has to be reintroduced to users brand-new to the HP
frustrating, but you cant rest on your laurels. Were been
around 20 years, but what does it mean? It probably means some of the
programmers were trying to sell to were in kindergarten when we
started. You have to remind them what it is you do, and move more
toward solutions. People just dont have the time, so you need
to reduce their learning curve.
got a bigger staff than Adager, but a smaller one than Bradmark.
Whats the optimal size for a company to stay creative and
Go get your MBA
and you still wont know what the answer is. Its not so
hard to figure out what you should work on. The hard part is figuring
out what you shouldnt work on. We tend to be a fairly inclusive
organization weve had six people leave in 22 years. We
have more of an international distributor network, and while
theyre not employees, we think of them as part of the Robelle
family. Adager has done more international business through Sun
Valley. A lot of our distributors have been with us since
Every two weeks
we have a company-wide staff meeting, and everybody has to produce a
status report beforehand. Its part of the glue that holds us
Robelle has published more almost anybody about the HP
3000. Why share so much of what youve learned for free with the
When we publish,
we never give away the state secrets. To get the details right is
bloody hard, and it makes a certain amount of sense to let Robelle do
it. Weve got the expertise to keep it up to date; CSY was very
kind to give us early access to MPE/iX 6.5 and a high-end machine
with a fair amount of disk space. But when youre testing files
above 4Gb, you can chew through 55Gb of disk space in an amazingly
short amount of time.
You publish this
stuff because you know how much hard work is really involved. What
were sharing is the basic ideas, because we think its
important to share them. It was a form of stealth marketing
thats been successful, a way to let people know that we have a
certain amount of expertise, and we knew what we were talking about
and if you came and dealt with us, theres a good chance
we were going to look after you pretty well. We put a really high
emphasis on quality, and trying not to promise what you cant
It gets back to
why our employees are creative. We like sharing this kind of thing,
helping our customers understand.