Heartfelt Values at the 3000s
If the HP 3000 has a heart, Fred White pumped it to life when
that essential organ began to beat. White created the IMAGE database
thats at the center of the HP 3000s success and value,
working in the early 1970s alongside HP engineer Jon Bale before the
computer was even finished. The 79-year-old White was on the scene at
the start of the HP 3000s life, the kind of beginning that its
OpenMPE advocates are facing this year.
White retired a little more than two years ago from
active HP 3000 service, but hes remained visible in both online
communities and at gatherings of the computers most formidable
minds. His computer career crossed five decades, starting in 1957
when programmer degrees didnt exist and math experts did the
heavy lifting to create file systems, operating environments and
applications. In the beginning of his work for HP, he was creating
the first file system for the 3000. He was then transferred to
another project that grew into the creation of IMAGE. At the finish,
more than 31 years later, he was working for Adager on date formats
to help assist the 3000 community in Y2K projects efforts that
some analysts are comparing to the major work of migration which HP
and its partners are proposing today.
He came to his HP work from 12 years of positions at
Sylvania Electronic Defense Lab, United Technology Center and IBM.
White had prepared for his more than 43 years of programming by work
and study in forestry, engineering, Japanese, criminology and math.
He joined Sylvania two months before Sputnik was launched by the
Russians. By 1969 hed responded to HPs entreaties and
followed some UTC colleagues to HP Cupertino, where he headed up the
File System Project for the Omega System, which evolved to
Never a fan of large organizations, White eventually
left HP in 1981 after he had been moved away from IMAGE and onto
other projects. He first met Adagers Alfredo Rego one morning
in 1977, when Rego traveled to HP Cupertino to meet the IMAGE
creators and learn more about IMAGE and its data structures. White
took a post which Rego offered as a consultant to Adager in 1981, and
became a senior research engineer for that company in 1989.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the tall, silver-haired
programmer cut a notable swath through the HP 3000 community,
especially at the annual Interex user group meetings. Always ready to
level with HPs management about what the HP 3000 needed,
Whites comments and criticisms in those meetings represented
the same unflinching focus required for his SPL programming on the
3000s internals. White always wanted to stay busy at his work.
In 1946 he worked on Okinawa as a Japanese interpreter for a
construction company and applied for a decrease in pay when he
thought the company hadnt given him enough to do. His 19-plus
years with Adager made up the biggest single stay in a career in
which he said I quit a lot of jobs. Thats what Im
prone to do when management screws up.
While so very much has changed about the computer
industry during Whites career from development on
punched cards and bartering at HP for 3000 processor time to serving
a PC-driven world with Y2K programming of the late 20th Century
we think some values remain as durable as they were in the
1950s, values and views that White still expresses with passion
today. As the 3000 community looks into its heart to find the resolve
to continue the march of MPE and IMAGE, we wanted to hear from White
about those values and listen to a few stories about another
beginning. We traded e-mail with him and then spoke in a freewheeling
telephone talk just after the Solution Symposium in San Jose.
You began your career when computers were a novelty in
business. What were your childhood hopes about your career?
I didnt have a clue on what I might want to do
as a grownup. I just didnt want to be like most of the grownups
The HP 3000 community that wants to homestead on the platform
wants to keep IMAGE up to date beyond HPs involvement. Do you
think the talent is out there, outside of HP, to make this
Sure, but not the motivation yet. Everybody has to
make money. If theyre working on IMAGE, they may not be keeping
up with whats going on in the rest of the world.
I can imagine a lot of the guys now who have the
personal motivation and are IMAGE lovers that could probably do it.
But then they have to concern themselves with Where do we
maintain, market and distribute it?
If HP announces tomorrow that it will turn MPE over
to OpenMPE, I think theres enough talent out there to do it.
Can you make some comparisons between the life of a 3000
developer in the early 70s versus the life of a developer in
the early months of the 21st Century?
At HP, I developed on punch cards in the early
70s. We tested on prototypes whose mean time between failure
was less than two hours. Later we could use terminals instead of
keypunch. Oddly enough, there were some advantages with punched
cards. On a big project programmers must coordinate tables. With all
tables on punched cards, they can be submitted on the front of all
compilations so that all table references are made to this common
punched card deck.
Open Source kind of projects, with lots of developers, are
popular today. Whats your opinion about the right number of
hands that should be working with code for a project?
I like working alone but the best number is
three, because you can share ideas. With more than three there are
too many lines of communication. With three you also can break ties.
You can argue about doing things this way, or that way, and sometimes
the differences are fairly marginal. By having three people vote,
nobodys hurt really hard if all three of you respect each
other. And once in a while you might have the fun of saying two years
later, I told you we should have done it the other way.
Every project should have a project team which has
responsibility for design, development, documentation and QA. After
release, the team has responsibility for maintenance, support and
Are smaller and focused development groups still key to
Yes. Along with doing ones own QA, and manuals
and product support.
In your opinion, whats the smartest thing HP ever did
with its HP 3000 product line?
We hear stories about Ed McCracken being essential to getting
IMAGE bundled. Do you see this as the opening of the 3000s era
Yes and no. Prior to that (when IMAGE was a product),
[the magazine] Datamation rated it in the top 3 percent of all
products and the top-rated database system. This was in the 1975-1977
time frame. After the bundling, it was no longer a product and could
no longer qualify for awards from Datamation.
So whats the biggest mistake that HP made about the
3000, a mistake that perhaps can still be corrected by the
I can think of at least five: 1. Not having the
development teams being the support teams. 2. Getting in bed with
Oracle. 3. Not being aware that there are no relational databases,
just relational access to databases. 4. Following the Unix pied
piper. 5. Not marketing the HP 3000. For example, they never bothered
to tell the world that the computers they used at corporate
headquarters were HP 3000s.
How did you first meet Alfredo Rego?
He traveled from Guatemala to Cupertino in 1977 to
meet the IMAGE development team and to ask us questions. My boss came
to me and said there was a Guatemalan whod come to see anybody
who worked on the original IMAGE project. I knew [IMAGE co-creator]
Jonathan Bale liked to work in the library to get away from the
phone, so I went up to tell him. We both went out to the front lobby,
and said Were both from the IMAGE project. Im Fred
White and this is Jonathan Bale. Alfredo said, Oh
FW and JB. Those were [IMAGE] flags. Jon Bale wrote the first
piece of code for IMAGE, DBSCHEMA. When it creates a root file, it
creates a two-byte tag with [Jons] initials on it, to indicate
it was a virgin root file.
The database creation utility, which I wrote,
replaces the JB with FW once the database has been successfully
created. Immediately when [Alfredo] said FW and JB, we
knew what he was talking about. He had gotten intrigued by the 3000
and IMAGE, and the utility that he was developing wasnt really
available yet anywhere. That was a weakness of IMAGE; there were no
facilities for diagnosing, modifying or repairing IMAGE databases.
Alfredo told us how he had been figuring out what the
root file layout looked like. He created a little schema and did a
dump of the root file, then hed modify the schema a little and
compare the two root files layouts. He was deducing the root file
layout out by working nights and weekends, manually comparing root
files. He went on for 30 minutes explaining what hed been
doing, and my jaw was dropping. I was thinking, Who would go to
all this trouble?
He told us hed come to Cupertino from Guatemala
City, because hed gotten to a point where the law of
diminishing returns had set in. He figured hed talk to the
developers and shorten his research time by a factor of five or more,
and hoped we would answer his questions. Well, Jonathan Bale said
that would be contrary to HP company policy. I said to him,
Jon, this guys going to get this done whether we help him
or not. All were doing is helping a fellow human. Whatever it
takes, Alfredos going to do it anyway.
At that point, Jon said it was up to me, but he
couldnt do it because it wasnt HP company policy. He
wished Alfredo the best of luck and left. So I answered his
questions, and even told him things he couldnt possibly have
thought of, such as privileged mode intrinsic calling and negative
DBOPEN modes, things peculiar to the software rather than the
database. We chatted for an hour and a half or so.
At the close of your involvement with Adager you were the
eldest and most senior developer in the 3000 community. Whats
the secret to staying so productive for so long?
1. Still being interested in your work. 2. Having a
boss who was more interested in quality than quantity. 3. Not
embarking into new programming areas and/or languages.
What are your interests these days, in retirement?
I enjoy my life with my wife Judy. She keeps me
active interacting with her family members, traveling, hiking and
bird (mostly raptor) watching. We like our place in Clarkdale (desert
plants and critters) with great views of Mingus Mountain and the red
rock area of Sedona. I like keeping in touch with many of my old
friends and enemies on the Internet and mailing lists. I also like
the shorter winters, and not being in a destination resort or a large
The 3000 community has some great memories of you speaking
your mind in public. Do you miss that much these days, or does the
Internet give you all the pulpit youd like?
The Internet is great. Didnt use it while
working. But, its still great to hang out with the folks
face-to-face. Judy and I attended the last two conferences in Sedona
Do you think the 3000 community has a fighting chance of
keeping MPE and IMAGE thriving propositions for the rest of this
Yes. You have the technical talent to do just about
anything as far as software is concerned. The problems will lie in
testing it and documenting it.
It would be fun. When I think about the people
involved, and if theyd really like to do it, I would be happy