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Fred White
IMAGE Co-creator


May 2003

Heartfelt Values at the 3000’s Heart

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 that’s at the center of the HP 3000’s 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 3000’s 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 he’s remained visible in both online communities and at gatherings of the computer’s most formidable minds. His computer career crossed five decades, starting in 1957 when programmer degrees didn’t 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 he’d responded to HP’s entreaties and followed some UTC colleagues to HP Cupertino, where he headed up the File System Project for the Omega System, which evolved to MPE.

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 Adager’s 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 HP’s management about what the HP 3000 needed, White’s comments and criticisms in those meetings represented the same unflinching focus required for his SPL programming on the 3000’s 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 hadn’t 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. That’s what I’m prone to do when management screws up.”

While so very much has changed about the computer industry during White’s 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 didn’t have a clue on what I might want to do as a grownup. I just didn’t want to be like most of the grownups I met.

The HP 3000 community that wants to homestead on the platform wants to keep IMAGE up to date beyond HP’s involvement. Do you think the talent is out there, outside of HP, to make this happen?

Sure, but not the motivation yet. Everybody has to make money. If they’re working on IMAGE, they may not be keeping up with what’s 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 there’s 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. What’s 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, nobody’s 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 enhancements.

Are smaller and focused development groups still key to better quality?

Yes. Along with doing one’s own QA, and manuals and product support.

In your opinion, what’s the smartest thing HP ever did with its HP 3000 product line?

Bundling IMAGE.

We hear stories about Ed McCracken being essential to getting IMAGE bundled. Do you see this as the opening of the 3000’s era of success?

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 what’s the biggest mistake that HP made about the 3000, a mistake that perhaps can still be corrected by the homesteading community?

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 who’d 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 “We’re both from the IMAGE project. I’m 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 [Jon’s] 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 wasn’t 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 he’d 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 he’d been doing, and my jaw was dropping. I was thinking, “Who would go to all this trouble?”

He told us he’d come to Cupertino from Guatemala City, because he’d gotten to a point where the law of diminishing returns had set in. He figured he’d 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 guy’s going to get this done whether we help him or not. All we’re doing is helping a fellow human. Whatever it takes, Alfredo’s going to do it anyway.”

At that point, Jon said it was up to me, but he couldn’t do it because it wasn’t HP company policy. He wished Alfredo the best of luck and left. So I answered his questions, and even told him things he couldn’t 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. What’s 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 city.

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 you’d like?

The Internet is great. Didn’t use it while working. But, it’s still great to hang out with the folks face-to-face. Judy and I attended the last two conferences in Sedona and Hawaii.

Do you think the 3000 community has a fighting chance of keeping MPE and IMAGE thriving propositions for the rest of this decade?

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 they’d really like to do it, I would be happy for them.

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