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Vladimir Volokh




June 2002

Keeping HP 3000s on the Road

He arrived in a red two-door sedan that had been traveling Texas roads for weeks, but Vladimir Volokh was not lost. The founder of HP 3000 software utility provider VEsoft was wrapping up a six-week tour of his customer sites in our home state. These days the 63-year-old is spending weeks out on the road, visiting HP 3000 owners to educate IT managers and consult at affordable fees. He’s probably in closer contact with more 3000 customers in the customers’ offices than any single software vendor. That title of vendor is one that Vladimir — his affable Russian manner makes it almost impossible to refer to him by anything other than his first name — carries with pride.

He’s got much to be proud of. He estimates his company has sold 15,000 licenses for its products in the more than 20 years VEsoft has been in business. VEsoft exploited the richness of MPE’s file system to create the MPEX shell. He founded his company in Los Angeles with his then-16-year-old prodigy of a son Eugene, who’d already worked in HP’s labs in a summer job at age 14. The Volokhs emigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, first founding one of the largest HP 3000 software companies, then building Movieline magazine on his wife Anne’s business acumen and literary skills.

Eugene remains with the company whose name bears his first initial alongside his father’s, despite a career in law that went from clerking for a Supreme Court Justice to a UCLA professorship, frequent appearances on TV news and writing articles in the likes of The Wall Street Journal. Vladimir has never wavered from two points of focus, the HP 3000 and software. He spends his days on the road visiting his customers to help them better manage what they already own, and perhaps add a VEsoft product or two, but most of his enthusiasm is for what’s already installed. Of MPEX, or Security/3000 or VEAudit, he says, “These are our babies. What parent does not want to talk about their children?”

Vladimir dropped into our hometown unexpected but welcome, and he took the pleasant diversion of a hearty meal at The County Line barbeque house while we all celebrated my 45th birthday together. (He’s more prone to enjoy grocery store rotisserie chicken when he’s dining alone, or sardines.) At the rib house he cleaned his plate, leaving the bones stripped. He pushed the platter forward and smiled, saying “That is a plate of someone who survived the Siege.” In his World War II boyhood , Vladimir and his family weathered 900 days of hunger and death.

Knowing his history, it felt like a state of business like the one HP 3000 customers are surviving might not seem so dire in comparison. Seeing Vladimir was flush with field research about this year’s Transition-bound 3000 community, we asked him to relay the feelings and condition of your fellow customers. Vladimir has been through worse than having HP discontinue the system which nearly all of his customers are using. We found he’s remaining optimistic while driving a modest rental car through Texas and other states, teaching customers to keep their HP 3000s tuned up — because who knows where their road may end?

You’ve been on the road showing software and training in person. Why do you feel this is better than something like, say, Internet-based instruction?

Somehow I developed this mode of operation, something nobody else seems to do. At least HP never sent their engineers around. I see the customers in their environments, their offices loaded with papers and magazines never opened. I am suspicious when once in awhile I see somebody with a clean desk.

You should talk, look at the computer, and pass knowledge that way. See what is applicable to their machine, and fix it while doing it. People should know their needs, but they don’t.

Classroom education is good for algebra, but not for computers. Of a class of 10 people, in their offices they have 10 different configurations. You give them an average in the class that does not fit anybody. They carry the information home, and whatever they remember they are not sure of. People say they remember me from a seminar, but when I look at their systems, nothing from the seminar is implemented. It was a waste of their time. The best education should be onsite, on their machine, one to one. That’s what I think is important, and it’s what I’m doing.

Have the people you’ve seen appear to be dispirited, or ready to give up on their HP 3000s?

I would call them lost. It seems to me they don’t know what to do. They cannot abandon it right now; their whole business is running on it. Small HP shops have one or two people, and they cannot do any conversion on their own. They have no experience or manpower. They are continuing with the 3000. I am 100 percent busy on the road, in Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, in Chicago.

Most of them are using packaged software, so they wait on what their vendor will do. Vendors should take real thought on what to do. They use software from Summit, Amisys, MANMAN, Smith-Gardner.

Some customers have used customization options to the degree that they’re not users of those vendors anymore. Either they will abandon customization and go back to a plain vanilla package, or who knows what? I would suspect a reasonable thing for them to do is find another package for another machine ready to use — of course it will not be on HP-UX — and go for it. After all, their loyalty should be to the company and themselves, not to HP.

Why not on HP-UX?

The [replacement] packages already running and already debugged are probably not running on UX. IBM has inertia working for them, and they never abandoned their proprietary systems. We still wonder why HP did that.

Have you seen that people believe they don’t have to do much more with their HP 3000, since HP’s announced its end of support for the product?

Yes. I tell them not to take this HP announcement as an excuse for not doing correct system management. I like the message on the NewsWire’s back page from Alfredo Rego: “There are mighty forces at play in the HP e3000 world, but what we can concentrate on is the realm we’re in, and make it right.”

We don’t know what will happen, or whether it will happen. In the meantime you are responsible for your system, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

I am surprised when a seasoned manager tells me, “We will probably convert the 3000 in two years.” I say two years is a long time. What are you doing today? You have to live to see two years. If you run out of disk space, and the system builds log files every day, you don’t know they are there. Many customers don’t know these files exist. The system works independently of what you know, or what you don’t know. On a recent visit a customer had one percent of system disk left, and they didn’t even know. Five percent of other space left, and it’s not contiguous space — it was split into the smallest spaces.

What can be worse than running on vapors? Not knowing you’re running on vapors. Two or three MPEX commands brought them up to 30 percent space.

Do customers you see immediately understand having so little space on their systems is bad?

Yes, when you tell them. Very often they don’t know what utility to use to look at it.

Well, I’ve heard the former GM of the 3000 division say that opening up boot drive space on the new 7.5 release was really no big deal. He said, “Disk is cheap now.”

This is a typical consideration of a person who sells things. You have to consider the whole disk issue. You have to hook it up. And even if a disk has a mean time between failures of 10 years, owning 10 disks makes the failure just one year. You back it up, and you incur more difficulties. It’s not good to buy extra hardware. It’s better to manage it. I see a lot of mis-management, not MIS management.

Why do you suppose some 3000 managers don’t know about these things?

They are overworked. I do hundreds of visits a year. Whatever has wire in it, I’ve seen, is their responsibility. Telephone systems, Internet, HP 3000s. As a result they never have time to read any of the manuals. I suspect they have the minimum knowledge of Windows, NT, HP-UX. It’s all just loaded on them.

In my mind, this overworking is an excuse to get outside help. Experts on Internet, knowing the LAN. As the old saying goes, education is not expensive. Ignorance is expensive.

Is there a customer base of HP 3000 owners which HP knows nothing about anymore?

I’m sure of it. And some vendors are so protective of their customers they don’t let other vendors know they also have their customers. Many customers don’t work with HP at all. What is more upsetting is that I see customers who pay HP for Predictive Support, and everyday HP logs in and only checks logfiles for hardware errors. Customers who have one percent left don’t get told by HP. A computer is talking to a computer, and we don’t see any live person involved.

Do customers seem to get the education on the 3000 that they need from HP?

HP isn’t interested in teaching about using things like VOLUTIL, or SYSGEN. Education is very important. Eugene wrote that many years ago that in colleges they teach you the answers. They should teach you the questions. Every HP class gives answers, and they don’t tell you what you should ask.

What’s the background you find most common among 3000 managers?

Everybody, even myself and [Robelle founder] Bob Green, was hired to do an application. Nobody would hire somebody to do system management. Most people remain in applications, and only some of them go beyond the call of duty. Maybe it’s an old man talking, but those youngsters don’t go beyond the call of duty.

Of course, some questions people ask show they don’t read the manuals or use HP’s help system. HELP isn’t really good enough. You type HELP and the command, but you have to know the command name. HP is inching in the right direction, so you can say HELP FUNCTIONS, for example.

In MPEX, you can say HELP DISK, with either a C or K. We provide a contributed library with our products, VECSL, full of helpful hints, command files and an EBOOK group.

With people not trained as systems managers, and responsible for everything with wire in their shops, where can they find the benefit in making their 3000s more efficient? Do they complain about not having enough time?

They tell me this all the time. My answer is, “How can we help you?” My method is to get somebody to help, and that’s how I make my own consulting, of four parts: show, tell, do and undo. I tell them they should involve other experts in other areas, like databases.

If you know MPE, you will know its limitations. Then you can look around and find a way to overcome them, with solutions from people like Bradmark, Adager, Robelle and us.

You’re associated with a rather rare resource in the 3000 world: a person expert in MPE under age 35, your son Eugene. Is he still active at VEsoft?

He is the “E” in VEsoft. I am famous for being Eugene’s father. He is forever our vice-president of research and development.

Why has he stayed for 20-plus years? He might be the only university law professor who’s also a software company R&D vice president.

HP made it easy for this kind of person to stay, people like Alfredo Rego, Brad Tashenberg, Bob Green. [The 3000 market] is a size not too big or too small, very sophisticated and yet not perfect. People stay with it and they put in a lot of intellectual energy, and there’s no way we can measure that. A lot of smart, able people stayed with HP for so long, and made it what it is today. If you think about it, every piece of HP’s 3000 software was improved upon over the years, except for the compilers.

Do you think this intellectual energy resource was taken into account when HP made its 3000 business decision last fall?

No. If HP would have supported the vendors like MCBA and ASK, that would be creating an ecosystem. It was ruined, and now they complain about it. So it seems that big companies make big mistakes.

Do you think there’s any chance of reversing the decline of that ecosystem?

In the deep of my heart I have this feeling: that maybe, just maybe, they might reverse it, seeing the loyalty of the customers. When HP was delaying the RISC architecture, people risked their resumes and careers to stay with HP. HP made the wrong decision to unbundle IMAGE, and again they didn’t understand that without IMAGE, HP is not HP. Luckily, HP listened, and it’s improved IMAGE, large IMAGE, not only TurboIMAGE, but as [IMAGE creator] Fred White says, CargoIMAGE. It’s big, fast and does everything. All this should be used, not abandoned.

In my business, I wouldn’t even think of making new models of computers and in the same year abandon them. The lab continues to improve HP, while the marketing tells us we should not use it anymore.

Do you have an opinion about whether an emulator could successfully run MPE on non-HP hardware?

It depends on how it is written. Inherently it would create a lot of overhead, if it simulates everything. If the able people in Allegro would be doing it, that would be a plus. Of the licensing issues and the copyright issues, it seems that HP should not care.

There’s free market beliefs at the heart of what you’ve done with your company. It seems like a big part of why you came to the US from the Soviet Union. How does it look to you when HP hesitates to free up MPE?

Not too many people understand that [free market] is a freedom to succeed or to fail. I spent the big part of my life in the Soviet Union at the time when it was the Soviet Union. American corporations now somehow resemble the Soviet Union. Central planning, committee decision making, and thinking that they know best, and nobody else should say anything to that effect. HP and other American corporations are like that. They even use the Soviet phrase “five-year plan.” To me it is very funny, because I grew up when the Soviet Union was using five-year plans. The results of that were disastrous, and that’s why the Soviet Union is not around anymore.

Looking at this example, we shouldn’t let it happen to certain parts of our economy. That’s what we’re talking about. HP seems unwilling to let people choose an alternative, and maybe to win where HP lost. They hide behind market forces and make one decision, and then they don’t allow the market to take over.

Is there anything good you carry from your Soviet experience into the 3000 world?

I continue my teaching as I did 50 years ago in the Soviet school system. In that system, good students teach bad students. One advantage is that while explaining, good students will learn even better. You should at least scan the manual, and better to read it and learn the manual.

Have you discovered in your travels that 3000 managers have more security problems than five years ago?

You don’t know if you’re insecure. People feel performance, or they call you if it’s bad. If security is bad, you never know until something happens. They do their best [to be secure], and they don’t think their best might not be good.

It’s especially amazing in the health industry. Managers are not diligent, and now there is legislation to protect health information privacy. Many managers will tell me “the [legislation] deadline comes in two years, so we’re okay now.” Seasoned managers act like schoolchildren, like learning the algebra only for the teacher. How about your responsibility to the customers buying insurance?

I told one of these managers in Texas “I wouldn’t buy your health plan. My information would not be secure.”

Do you think that new connectivity offered through the Internet makes HP 3000 shops more vulnerable?

I don’t think so. Eighty percent of the violations happen in-house. The outside violation is more spectacular, newsworthy. It can happen in every shop. In personal life, people are very diligent. When it comes to security, I hear this every day — my users are so ignorant. My first thought is that this manager is ignorant, if they think their users are ignorant.

People think the application vendor is going to make their system secure because of HIPAA legislation. But the way to the system is through the hundred other accounts other than the application. Nobody ever counts how many user accounts, and it’s always in the hundreds. You’re responsible for the whole system.

I ask, how many SM users do you have? I have yet to see anyone who guesses right. Usually they are optimists — they say two, while it is really five.

You’ve built a very successful company by creating a product that improves on the 3000’s operating system. Is HP catching up in the 22 years since MPEX came out?

They are inching forward. After 25 years they have a PURGE command for filesets. However, it still does not purge the databases. And it still cannot select the files to purge. We vendors, we play this game better than HP. All this richness of the file system is there, and we make use of it.

To defend HP, they have this legendary compatibility to take care of, which is very important to preserve their market. It’s more important to them than a new feature, which might cause a failure in New Zealand, for example. Not everybody realizes that if you have good features that are compatible, not so good features are also compatible. They probably chose correctly not to improve the little things, and keep it compatible. And after all, they sold you the box already, so there is no money in making a new feature that HP cannot sell.

What’s remarkable is that with the changes in HP management over the years, somehow this line was always there to let the vendors improve upon. We should admit that one of the hands of HP has been doing it right, up until now.

People suggest that maintaining the compatibility has kept HP from being responsive to changes for the 3000. Do you think so?

This is the price that you pay. MPE is a very complex system, millions of lines of code written over the years by smart cookies. It’s hard to maintain software written by smart cookies who hate documentation. And yet they do it, and that’s why I think outside development of MPE is difficult to accomplish. That’s why Open Source for MPE would be very difficult.

What’s likely to happen to the average size of HP 3000-using companies — does the community become a group of smaller firms?

I am afraid so. Big companies have money to scrap everything, recreate or buy something. They take the loss and go on.

So how does ownership change, based on what you see on the road today?

Us Americans — I say us, because I have been here since 1975, and I am a citizen now — understand the language of cars. To make a point, I say that when I see one percent left, “you’re running on empty.” But then they say, “maybe we’ll be converting, we don’t need you to rebuild the engine.”

I am just offering to add water and oil, until you reach the spot of converting. They argue, “but it works.” I say, “so you run your car in second gear, and nobody told you to shift. So you change it more often than you should, and it’s not as fast, and you buy more oil. Let’s do little things — non-intrusive optimization. Let’s balance your disks, watch your database capacity, not back up your garbage files. You’ll survive to see what will happen in two years.” Let’s run our cars in the right gear, and add water and oil regularly, before they fail.

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