A Firm Solution for 3000
Willard West has spent a career completing circuits,
and now hes turning his company toward connecting the HP 3000
homesteader with a supply of emulated computing power. The founder of
Strobe Data, along with his wife Vera, West popped up his hand in an
OpenMPE session at HP World this summer and gave the HP 3000 faithful
a new future to ponder about emulation of the computer. West spoke up
after more than a year of discussion about software-based emulators,
including an understanding on OpenMPEs part that Strobe would
be building only a software-based 3000 emulator. That software
solution will also be in the companys future, but the company
will first develop from its most seasoned expertise: hardware. West
said at the meeting that he wants his company to be the first to
market with a hardware-based emulator card that will make a
server-class PC pretend its an HP 3000. Strobe is working on a
deal with HP to develop such a device, a product that will use the
same processor now working at the heart of the newest generation of
The idea of hardware-based emulation using the
vendors chips might have been new to those in the 3000
community assembled at the OpenMPE meeting, but the concept has been
long-proven at Strobe. The company was founded on its ability to
emulate hardware vendors have stopped building: first Data General,
then Digital and finally HP minicomputers, as the DG Nova and
Eclipse, DEC PDP-11 and HP 1000 communities found new life for their
applications, even after DG, DEC and HP stopped selling the
Strobe has an existing relationship with HP on several
fronts, offering both Digital system emulation and the HP 1000
real-time emulation card, the Kestrel. Since the HP 1000
communitys experience is being held up as a model for how HP
might help the HP 3000 community, the entry of a company that has
succeeded in extending the life of HP 1000 applications with an
emulator looked like good news for 3000 homesteaders. We spoke with
West a few weeks after that HP World conference, as he filled us in
on what its been like to extend a computers life beyond
the makers schedule, and how Strobe has overcome the challenges
in such a task.
Why go to HP to get PA-RISC chips for an emulator?
Its the easiest, quickest way to the market for a
product. If we can get the chips, we can get into the market fairly
quickly. Well have to write some software to emulate the
peripherals using PC peripherals, but thats almost standard
operating procedure to us.
At the same time, we can get started writing an actual
software emulation for PA-RISC.
Do you expect to be able to write that software without
much MPE experience? Or is the PA-RISC IO bus so well documented you
dont feel like you need that experience?
Thats exactly right. The documentation is readily
available. In general the IO bus is in the public domain, and if not,
it certainly exists somewhere.
Have you used HPs chips to create your other
No, but we did use the Fairchild F9445, a 40-pin single chip
implementation of the Data General Nova architecture that could glow
red-hot. The original Falcon card did not have an IO bus, and we
enhanced the structure of the design so we could do the DG Eclipse
Have you ever had a chip discontinued on you?
Nobodys sure how long HP will be offering PA-RISC.
When NSC acquired Fairchild, that F9445 chip was
discontinued. We designed and successfully fabbed, in cooperation
with IC Designs, our own 1.25-micron CMOS version of the F9445, the
ICD9445, yielding almost twice the performance of the original.
Do you still pursue your own chip designs, or are there
broader sources to buy chips from? Weve heard the PA-RISC
processors are available from Hitachi.
We have considered going down that path. What we do today
with Osprey, our PDP-11 emulator, and the HP 1000 emulator, are both
implemented on the exact same hardware. Its a PCI card that has
a couple of Xylinx programmable gate arrays with 4Mb of main
Do you often have outside certification of your
products ability to emulate the original hardware?
What were going to be asking HP for is the hardware
diagnostics. With that, well certify the emulation.
How can you protect and provide for HPSUSAN and HPCPUNAME
data that third party software companies need for their copy
protection? Does this require HP to give you access to its SS-CONFIG
software, or can you engineer something that protects the software
vendors but leaves HP out of the loop?
First of all, this will not be an expanding market. Where we
run into a situation where we had to protect software vendors,
weve done a special version of an emulator that was unique to
them. Thats one possibility. The other possibility is that
every Osprey emulator goes out of here with an embedded serial
number. We can license our add-on software by reading that serial
number, and we can make that capability available to the third
parties. In the past, if the third party software supplier can tell
us what [number] they are looking for, we can emulate that
conditional on finding a specific serial number. There has to be a
payback for that kind of custom engineering. Modifying their software
so they can read our serial number would be free.
Have you seen any reservation from HP so far about
enabling customers to buy an emulator card built upon HPs
I was pleased that HP was standing firm on not making any
concessions to sell hardware after Oct. 31. What HP has told me is
that after October they will not sell the 3000s, and they will not
allow HP 9000s to be converted to HP 3000s. So far I have not heard
even the tiniest squeak of concern from HP over us helping customers
to keep MPE applications.
On Strobes side of this, doing the product with the
PA-RISC chip means the product will go away when the PA-RISC chip
goes away. We fully intend to do a software emulation, but using the
chip is the quickest way to the market. From everything Ive
heard from HP, they are earnestly working to satisfy the customers
who are going to stay. Its my impression they are aware that if
a product comes to market, then more customers will stay than will
migrate. But so be it is their opinion, I guess.
Are you talking with the HP people who are only in charge
of PA-RISC chips, or the HP officials in the HP 3000 business as
Our meetings with HP have been pretty much preliminary so
far. We had a meeting in Cupertino, and I was able to meet with Dave
Wilde, Ross McDonald and Mike Paivinen in Atlanta. At the moment
were working through them to get access to PA-RISC. I
wouldnt be tempted to go around them. We already have some
history with HP on the HP 1000 and with Digital, now part of HP.
HP has asked that the emulation run on HP hardware. I asked
how do we assure that. They came up blank on that, and then I asked
how do I enforce it? They agreed that I should put on my best face
and say it should be on HP server-class hardware. We came back and
decided there would be a rebate to the user if they could show it
runs on HP hardware. We propose that HP tell us what class or model
of hardware, and well negotiate if they get too unreasonable.
But we want server-class hardware with ECC memory. We dont want
to run the product on a cheap PC. Weve had VARs and OEMs make
that mistake. Well come up with a rebate scheme, more of a good
faith kind of thing.
Has Strobe done software-based emulation before?
Yes and no. Weve done software-based emulation for the
Data General Eclipse and Nova series, which went absolutely nowhere.
We wrote the emulation in 1996, and it had about half the performance
of the hardware solution. We recently fired up that software product
on a Pentium 4, and now it outruns our hardware quite
Isnt this the promise of software-based emulation?
That sooner or later, a fast enough processor will emerge that can
provide performance as fast as the original, native hardware?
Yes, sooner or later. The dilemma is: can your legacy
environment limp along until that level of processor appears?
Were currently doing a PDP-11 software emulation, and I want a
software emulation that lets you unplug the hardware solution. The
team is in the process of marrying the new PDP-11 emulation to the
Windows NT peripherals virtualization.
Do you think you need some outside assistance from Allegro
Consultants on the MPE aspects of your product?
Weve assumed that all along. How much is going to be
the question, and weve had several discussions about what level
of cooperation and how to implement it.
Jon Backus of OpenMPE has expressed concern that several
emulation products would pose a prospect of failure for all of them.
Is competition from other emulator makers a risk?
With our Data General products we had a couple of competing
products, and we trounced them. In the PDP world, theres a
competitor in SRI, the same company that has announced its
interested in creating an HP 3000 emulator.
Digital decided to do us in with chip availability years ago.
Then they came to the realization that it wouldnt hurt to have
something on the horizon to keep people in that PDP-11 world. So
Digital was the originator of SRIs PDP product, and now SRI has
gone off and done a VAX emulation, also.
In SRIs case we exist in two different worlds. We have
two keys to our success with our emulators. One is to be able to
throttle our product so it doesnt break the real time timing
loops. Two, supporting the actual IO bus.
Since youve created an HP 1000 emulator, do you have
to support a new bus to create an HP 3000 emulator?
No, its only that this IO bus will be in a commercial
What advantage will you provide over other emulation
projects that have been announced for the HP 3000 community?
SRI has existed in the commercial segment of the market, and
weve existed in real-time process and control. This is our
first venture into the commercial side of the market. We expect to be
successful, and hope to be able to put some kind of deal together
with Allegro that helps them help us, without them going into
competition with us.
How fast do you believe the HP 3000 emulator market will
take off after Oct. 31? Can you arrive too early, while theres
too much 3000 used hardware to compete against?
At the time we hit the market with our PDP emulator, Digital
was still selling PDP-11s. Were clearly not going to interfere
with HP in that respect. At best were a year away from a
Our major competition has been the used market. Weve
out-survived that. Yes, we often lose sales opportunities to people
buying in the PDP-11 world. When people take those offline,
theyre often worthless. Eventually you will need used equipment
fixed or repaired, and we expect to outlive that situation.
When will you need to have operating environment experts
working with Strobe to do a hardware-based emulation?
Our first benchmark will be to emulate the hardware
religiously. With any luck, then the software will just come up and
run. Weve done that again and again.