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VAX Users See the Writing on the Wall 463

Snot Locker writes "An informative piece at ComputerWorld talks about how VAX users are anticipating the costly migration to more modern systems. Several noteworthy tidbits, including hints of the port of OpenVMS to Itanium and the tale of VAX systems that have not had a reboot in 6 years!"
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VAX Users See the Writing on the Wall

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  • Oh man! (Score:5, Funny)

    by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) <akaimbatman&gmail,com> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:23PM (#9645805) Homepage Journal
    I didn't see THAT coming!

  • by grub ( 11606 ) <slashdot@grub.net> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:24PM (#9645826) Homepage Journal

    If any VAXs admins are reading this and are preparing to send their machines to the landfill, why not check to see if your hardware is on OpenBSD's wanted hardware list [openbsd.org]? They actively maintain a native VAX port (and it's damn good geek karma!)
    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:27PM (#9645877)
      Makes sense. Dead OS, dead hardware.

      Fact: *BSD is dying

    • No no no,

      It's frigging excellent geek Karma...

      Let's face it, the only guy getting better Karma than you is the maintainer on the OpenBSD Vax port...

      After all, you're just donating endangered hardware, he is actively developping for it...

      But, it's not wasted work kids, not as long as we have a VAX emulator!

      • VAX emulators (Score:5, Informative)

        by emil ( 695 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:56PM (#9646264)

        The article mentions SRI's Charon VAX. This is very expensive software that requires a USB dongle for licensing.

        However, you can also run VAX VMS on a free i386 VAX emulator called SIMH [trailing-edge.com]. I don't seem to be able to get very good ethernet performance with SIMH. However, you can run NetBSD/VAX on it out of the box, and OpenBSD will run with a kernel patch. SIMH also has a PDP-11 emulator and includes images of the original UNIX V7 from AT&T (courtesy of SCaldera). SIMH is an interesting way to run both ancient and modern UNIXen without reformatting your PC.

        You can also get free VMS licenses [montagar.com] for SIMH/VAX. They must be renewed yearly.

        Alpha VMS also supported a VAX binary emulator called VEST [uruk.org], which is mentioned in another post here. Support for VEST is dying, however (modern RDB releases have dropped it). The Charon VAX emulator also runs on Alpha VMS.

        • by dinog ( 582015 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @05:18PM (#9647102)
          However, you can also run VAX VMS on a free i386 VAX emulator called SIMH.

          Yes, all the reliablility of a modern PC, with the syntax of VMS. Someone must really be into S&M.

          Dean G.

        • Re:VAX emulators (Score:5, Informative)

          by TheGavster ( 774657 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @07:06PM (#9648045) Homepage
          The issue with transfering these aged systems to modern hardware under emulation is that people actually took time to optimize the programs, given the limited capabilities of the machines. Thus, emulators usually are not complete enough in their emulation to run the incredibly customized software properly.
        • Re:VAX emulators (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Nefarious Wheel ( 628136 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @08:32PM (#9648616) Journal
          Ahh, I f$miss("''DCL'") ... loved the syntax, dreamed in it.

          Way more interesting is the SDS 940 emulator; first machine I ever played with. Discrete transistor and diode logic. My old friend Bob Long had written an assembler and an application for it - half of the 8k word core tank was used for his "calculator", an infinite precision calculator that worked in any base between 2 and 32. When I first typed "9**81" and watched the ASR 33 typing out three rows of numbers, I knew what my career would be right then and there. It had room to store one constant; taking the 81'st root of the result took about two hours, followed by a bell, the bang of the teletype and the number 9.

          Bob had an old AM transistor radio tuned to the end of the dial, sitting on top of the M register (a couple of large, heavy cards) and we could hear the calculation's progress. Handled fractional roots, too. Computing in 1969; Them Waz The Dayz.

    • You can do the inverse: contract with a private VAX maintainer/junkyard to keep your machines running. Of course, everyone can't do that, as then there's be no spares (;-))
    • People run software on Vax's. Not operating sytems.

      NetBSD will serve no purpose other than to watch them boot into a shell prompt.

  • 6 years of uptime? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by inkdesign ( 7389 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:25PM (#9645842)
    Seems to me that 6 years of uptime will have most likely saved the company about as much money as it would cost to migrate to an updated system.
    • Possibly, but that money went into a CEO's golden parachute.
    • My current employer had a VAX that had some monstrous uptime as well. But in the end the bootdisk failed, and the system couldn't be brought up at all. It proved an easy way to migrate users off of the system - a migration that had been in the works for the past 5 years. Now I hear the same thing is planned for our Alpha GS/140. I mean, to migrate off of it, not to have the bootdisk fail...
      • Six Years? (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Mark_MF-WN ( 678030 )
        Six years of uptime is pretty impressive for a computer. But it's even more impressive for the facility. Seriously -- what kind of UPS and equipment redundancy would you need to get that kind of uptime?
        • by hearingaid ( 216439 ) <redvision@geocities.com> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @04:55PM (#9646906) Homepage
          It's a VAX. They're older than commercial electricity. Obviously he had his own gas-fired generator running it :)
        • by red floyd ( 220712 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @05:04PM (#9646987)
          My understanding is that the hamsters are just about dead after 6 years of continuous running.
        • Re:Six Years? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Dun Malg ( 230075 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @06:21PM (#9647620) Homepage
          Six years of uptime is pretty impressive for a computer. But it's even more impressive for the facility. Seriously -- what kind of UPS and equipment redundancy would you need to get that kind of uptime?

          Dunno about that particular facility, but Hughes Aircraft Company (since swallowed by the abominable Raytheon) had a facility built in the 60's that used multiple diesel generators for long term outages and a mechanically coupled flywheel electrical feed for their critical computer systems. From how my father described it, it was a large electric motor attached to a generator with a 6-foot diameter reinforced concrete flywheel between them. The kinetic energy stored in the flywheel easily maintained consistenet power during brownouts, and gave four or five minutes of power if the power went out completely-- enough time for the diesel generators to start. One of the engineers my father worked with called it "inertial backup power".

      • by mangu ( 126918 )
        It proved an easy way to migrate users off of the system - a migration that had been in the works for the past 5 years.

        How did you migrate, to what system? We have some VAXen where I work and, even though we are as satisfied as every one who has worked with a VAX, they will eventually have to be put to sleep. Everything about migration from VAX interests me.

    • by rjamestaylor ( 117847 ) <rjamestaylor@gmail.com> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:54PM (#9646236) Journal
      What they didn't say was, yes, it was 6 Years without a reboot, but 7 years without a user. /me ducks for cover
    • Vax versus Google (Score:4, Interesting)

      by mec ( 14700 ) <mec@shout.net> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @04:16PM (#9646478) Journal
      I'm not an expert in this field, but it seems to me that there are two ways to get six years of uptime.

      (1) A single highly-engineered machine (yeah I know VAX/VMS has clusters, whatever they are).
      (2) Redundant cluster of many interchangeable parts.

      Google has figured out how to do (2) successfully.

      I bet that (2) is harder than it looks. How do you protect against a common mode failure in your system software? Do you run a variety of genetically independent OS's and databases's, or do you run identical software on each machine, leaving you open to monoculture failures?

      Digression: It's beautiful how eukaryotic organisms solve this problem by having two independent copies of each gene. But if a gene is broken, it generally does nothing rather than produce a lethal result. And the robustness of individual eukaryotes is not enough for the requirements of computers.
      • Re:Vax versus Google (Score:5, Informative)

        by afidel ( 530433 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @04:39PM (#9646745)
        Uhh, anything with that kind of uptime almost by definition has to be a clustered system. There is too much potential for things like a backplane to fail. Everytime I see an uptime over a couple years it is invariably a VAX or S/390 or other large system sysplex where it is the cluster that has been up and running continuously for that long, not necessarily a single system. Of course the whole point of large systems like those is that you CAN have uniterrupted access to the system for years at a time.
      • (1) is not the answer. VAX clusters are groups of machines that share a lot of resources (most commonly, hard drives; even then, RAID arrays are popular in the bigger systems). Believe me, VMS' impressive uptime figures (and they're still very impressive) are largely because of (2).
  • by jrj102 ( 87650 ) * on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:25PM (#9645847) Homepage
    Yeah, I worked on campus in the IT department all through college back in the early 90s. We had a VAX that ran pretty much everything, and I don't think it was rebooted a single time the entire time I worked there. When students started demanding shell accounts to access the Internet (remember, we're talking pre-Mosaic here) we just added a couple extra hard drives to the VAX to provide enough space for all the students to have a couple meg of storage, and the system handled the load without a problem. We're talking about a fairly large (10.000 student) system here... it just worked. Nary a hiccup.

    These are rock-solid systems that are trouble-free to the point of being kind of silly... but replacement parts were hard to find even back then. (Their VAX had been purchased in the 80s I think.)

    The article mentions a VAX emulator that sounds like a much better option than the one chosen by the school I worked for back in the day: an unbeleivably expensive (nearly million-dollar) migration to an Oracle solution that never did really wind up working. (They have since migrated many of the processes to PAPER for crying out loud.)

    --- JRJ

    • Sounds like the way people at UNC-Chapel Hill accessed the internet, circa 1994 - via dialup shells, PINE, and FTP, all through a single VAX box.

    • Years ago i had an RS/6000 AIX machine that ran a program called COBOL RESOURCE, it was essentially a VAX emulator that would run Cobol and RPG programs.
      It also provided a very nice pseudo-shell with a VAX coding toolchain. The best part of it was that the system was simply made up of AIX executables and shared libraries, so we were able to integrate with our existing shell and awk programs.

      Not sure who made it, but it was a great program, and is still running to this day which is 8 years since used i
    • by bcrowell ( 177657 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @05:07PM (#9647003) Homepage
      VMS was actually a nice system in many ways. The file system had versioning built in, which was really convenient. I liked the way the error messages were all formatted so they began with unique identifiers like %STARWARS-E-SILICONMELTED, so you could look up the message in the documentation to find out more about it. File versioning may be an example of how the Unix filesystem has become sort of the bare-bones de facto standard for the internet, which is kind of a shame, because in some ways it's impoverished.

      Systems dudes I worked with also thought VMS's real-time features beat the **** out of Unix, but I'm not an expert on that.

      Do science labs still run VMS on alphas, or are they going the way of the dinosaur?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:25PM (#9645852)
    ...a computer that has literally run from since before Windows 98 existed until now without being rebooted.

    Hell, with the critical-update-du-jour lately, it's probably hard for Windows users to imagine a computer that's been running since the previous week without being rebooted.
  • by WombatControl ( 74685 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:26PM (#9645858)

    ComputerWorld confirms: VAX is dying

    In all seriousness, the fact that VAX is still around is a testament to how damn well engineered those machines are.

  • Big Deal... (Score:5, Funny)

    by arcanumas ( 646807 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:27PM (#9645875) Homepage
    No reboot in 6 years?
    Hahaha....i have a computer that has not had a reboot in almost 10 years.
    In fact it's still somewhere in the closet.
    I should plug it in sometime....
  • 6 year uptimes... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by NerveGas ( 168686 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:28PM (#9645900)

    About a year ago, we switched data centers, and had to power down our rack of x86 machines running Linux. A couple of them had redundancy in hardware (power supplies, RAID arrays, etc.), but the majority of them, working as a load-balanced web farm, had no redundancy at all.

    Out of the rack of machines, nearly all of them had been up for the full two years that they'd been in the data center. Of the few that hadn't been up the entire time, *one* had a power supply die, the others were shut down for hardware upgrades.

    Now, a year later, all of the machines are still up and running. I really don't have any doubt that a fair number of them would have achieved 6-year uptimes, had they been left in place long enough.

    • by sczimme ( 603413 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @04:20PM (#9646531)

      And you really think you can compare the uptime of an X86/Linux box to that of a VAX?

      You had a handful of PCs stay up for two years. That's not bad, but one cannot simply extrapolate uptime - it just doesn't work that way. That's like saying "I lived to be 60 - I'm sure I'll live to 180 if I'm careful".

      Besides, in general the effective lifespan of a PC isn't much more than five years. Your PCs are in the second half of their useful life; I'm sure the VAX is too, but its lifespan appears to be about 10X that of the PC.

      Not flaming, btw - I think PCs are useful for a number of tasks; however, long life and long uptime are not part of the PC genome. Sorry.
  • by rkaa ( 162066 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:29PM (#9645906)
    Lizzie Borden took an axe,
    And plunged it deep into the VAX;
    Don't you envy people who
    Do all the things YOU want to do?

  • by kabocox ( 199019 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:29PM (#9645911)
    The article mentions mainly about how they are looking at emulators because HP/Compaq isn't producing any new VAXs. I'm guessing HP will release a new "VAX" that is just a custom emulator running on top of intel's lastest. From a marketing point of view, it's what I'd do.
    • HP will release a new "VAX" that is just a custom emulator running on top of intel's lastest. From a marketing point of view, it's what I'd do.

      God, no! Unisys did that with their NX line of mainframes. While it offered some advantages, your mainframe was only as stable as the NT 4.0 image beneath it. Not to mention that the process priorities never worked right on that system. All it did was convince Unisys that they didn't have to update the MCP any longer. You could just use NT for REAL stuff. The MCP is just a "legacy" OS that you're emulating, right?

      And then they wonder why IBM eats their lunch every time. Blasted &#$%$#. And if any of you Unisys Execs are listening, WHERE'S MY JVM?!
  • Binary translation? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hedley ( 8715 ) <hedley@pacbell.net> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:29PM (#9645913) Homepage Journal
    Dec had a large program back when to move Vax binaries over to the Alpha. The VEST software.

    VEST [uruk.org]

    Is there really an "end of the road" when the binary keeps on living in sort of a Matryoshka
    doll fashion?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:30PM (#9645928)

  • Forking off a subprocess and reading its stdout was an extreme pain under VMS. I had to port a program there once. It took 60 lines to do it in Unix (lots of error checking), and 182 lines (3x the code) on VMS.

    On the bright side, it had enough other POSIX stuff (file I/O, pthreads, etc.) that the rest of the port was pretty easy.

    Logicals are actually kind of cool - a bastard cross between environment variables and symlinks, but you could do some neat things with 'em.

  • VAX replacement? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:30PM (#9645932)
    The US Army is still using VAX systems for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle turret simulator to train crews in gunnery. Most of the simulators that were bought in the early 1980's are still going strong. AFAIK, no plans to replace them anytime soon. The damn things have be set on fire to get them to stop working.
  • Alpha? (Score:5, Informative)

    by pesc ( 147035 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:31PM (#9645946)
    Well, most VMS users run on Alpha and has done so since more than ten years. It's not like all VMS users are stuck on VAX and only now has an alternative with Itanium.

    Funny, the article does not mention Alphas. Has HP buried that architecture so well?
    • by DarkMan ( 32280 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:47PM (#9646157) Journal
      Yup. The end of life for the Alpha was announced a while ago. I belive that the current generation of chips (EV7) is the last, with the EV7z from HP the really last new Alpha.

      Now, whilst it's perfectly possible to migrate from a VAX to OpenVMS on an Alpha it's a bit short sighted to migrate from a old platform to one that's about to enter the same state. The sensible stratagy is for something with a longer lifespan. The Alpha was intended to be that, back in the days of DEC, but Compaq basically folded the Alpha into Intels Itanium chips, which are quite different.

      HP talks about supporting Tru64 on Alphaservers up to 2011. I read that to mean that after then, if it breaks, that's it, so you'd better be migrated off it by then [0]. So, given about a year to fully migrate, switching to Alpha would only give you 3 years (1 year to switch to, 3 years, then 1 year to move on). That's not a good proposition, at least to me.

      So, the short answear was, yup, Alpha is buried, and the turf goes on top in 5 years.

      [0] Granted, that's the possibly just the OS side. It's tricky to get hard details out of HP, short of cornering someone.

  • The article mentioned migrating from a 10-year old VAX machine to a dual Athlon. I'll bet that the dual Athlon is 4x faster, and cost 10x less.

  • by Ag3nt ( 790820 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:32PM (#9645957)
    The fact that some VAX systems haven't had a reboot in 6 years reminds me of a story my HP/Compaq representative told me about the reliability of their Proliant servers. There was a server in a data center that handled user logons to the Novell client. One year the data center was remodeled but none of the servers could be moved because users still needed to be able to log on. So they finished remodelling the room and accidentally walled in the server. 3 years later someone finally decided that it was time to upgrade that server. When they went to look for it, it was nowhere to be found. It was still running after 3 years and hundreds of thousands of logons later. (They finally contacted the remodeling company and figured it out.)
  • itanium? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by turgid ( 580780 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:34PM (#9645984) Journal
    I don't envy those poor VAX folks having to migrate over to itanium, whose future is very much in question just now. Almost every week now, a report comes out about how disappointing itanium sales are, how software vendors are abandoning it, or not developing fot it in the first place, and how HP and intel keep revising their sales projections and PR fluff. itanium has gone from "going to be the defacto 64-bit standard CPU early in the 21st century offered by all major vendors" to the most widely deployed in 2-way servers and up, to 8-way servers and up, and now it will be regarded as a success if it achieves moderate acceptance in niches at the very high end. itanium was to rely on economies of scale to recoup its R&D expenditure and to become profitable. Now it will have to limp along as a costly, esoteric niche player. How long can intel and HP keep it propped up? When will the money dry up? When will HP cut its losses and move over completely to intel's Opteron clone?
  • by Just Some Guy ( 3352 ) <kirk+slashdot@strauser.com> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:34PM (#9645993) Homepage Journal
    I like the supposed picture of the VAX maintenance guy in a dress shirt, tie, and short hair.


    Show me RMS's heavier and less-well-groomed brother in Birkenstocks, a T-shirt, and suspenders and I'd be a little more likely to believe it.

  • I remember working on OpenVMS on VAX and (later) Alpha systems. The OS was pretty cool for its time...it looks like Microsoft lifted a lot of its security features for NTFS in Windows NT.

    HP is really keen on getting rid of their older inherited platforms...DEC systems are known for their reliability, and I know a lot of hospitals, etc. that use them for daily production work. It's definitely a minority now, but they were huge back in the day. Qualified VMS people will be very well-paid as migration consult

  • including hints of the port of OpenVMS to Itanium

    I guess porting to the Alpha wasn't enough of a hint that they wanted to kill VMS:)

    Now, of course, the Itanic is going down in a big way since Intel decided to go with ix86-64...

    I'm only surprised they didn't port VMS to the i860.

  • by TractorBarry ( 788340 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:36PM (#9646019) Homepage
    Uptime of 6 years ?

    Pah. My abacus (which has been handed down through 3 generations) has had an uptime of nearly 100 years. And apart from missing a few of the counters (I was a curious child) it still works great.

    Them thar 'puters are just new fangled junk.
  • by Pike ( 52876 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:40PM (#9646072) Homepage Journal
    Holy crap! Did the phrase "Y2K" mean nothing to these people?!?
  • Nostalgia (Score:3, Interesting)

    by raider_red ( 156642 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:41PM (#9646075) Journal
    I learned C on a Vax during my freshman year of college. I also maintained my email account on one for all five years I was there. We had three vax machines grouped in a DecNet cluster. One was the original 11/780 model, and was nearly as old as me. It still worked without a hiccup, and met the mail needs of nearly 20000 students.

  • by TheTXLibra ( 781128 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:45PM (#9646130) Homepage Journal
    I remember VAX quite fondly. I wasn't exposed to it until 1995, when I went to college, and haven't really bothered with it then. But now it begs the question: did we ever really -need- to advance?

    Sure, now we've got amazing graphics capabilities, and games that can make real life seem dull and colourless by comparison. But you know, games were just as much fun back then too. Who here never played Zork? Who here never played on a MUD? Okay, okay, probably several of you, but still... Even with all the amazing graphics, it seems like games were more fun back then... so games aren't the reason...

    Business? Businesses ran fine on the tools available at the time. It did just enough work to get the job done. Sure, people had to do some extra work here and there, but since there weren't a billion pre-packaged automated features, what work the computer saved them was considered a blessing, rather than a hinderence. So business isn't the reason.

    Communication? Bah! We communicated just fine. Email worked, BBSes worked, phones worked, fax lines worked. If we needed to make a call away from home, businesses usually let you use the phone, or make change for the payphone. Unless you were a doctor, there wasn't a single phone call or message you just couldn't stand to go without for 10 whole minutes. So communications wasn't the reason.

    Was it for the Entertainment Industry? Sure, computer graphics gave us amazing films like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, but before that time, directors knew how to make us truly -believe- we were seeing a monster in lieu of some puppets and paper mache. Alien had very little in the way of computer graphics. I don't know that Star Wars (ep 4) had any... yet they remain icons of the Sci-Fi film industry to this day. Their CGI counterparts are often lame in comparison. So it wasn't for movies or TV...

    Why then, did we really need to advance so far, so fast, in the realm of computers? And why take a good thing like VAX and cash it in, just because it's old?
    • Why?

      To feed an industry that is based on the notion that obosolete hardware is somehow less useful than when it was new. If you and I just bought everything once, they would not be as rich. So we must be enticed to junk still working goods for new ones.

      On the bright side, it's a golden age for ebay vultures like myself...
    • by daviddennis ( 10926 ) * <david@amazing.com> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @04:07PM (#9646383) Homepage
      A few answers:

      (1) People without significant training and heavy motivation could not learn how to use computers in the "good old days". We only had a market of maybe 30% of the population capable of using them. For computers to spread throughout society, this was not good enough.

      The computer industry wanted to spread, for financial reasons if nothing else, and so they made the changes needed to make computers easier to learn and use for non-experts.

      (2) Marketing. People want pretty things. People can be convinced to upgrade to something "better" by giving them more pretty things. Even if the old, cerebral games were more fun, the new, slicker graphical games took over the world because they were pretty, and because many of them took advantage of people's natural desire to shoot other people. (I have never understood this, personally, but it's the truth).

      I have thought many times that older computers are better, mainly because they were more reliable, and sufficiently simple that a reasonably normal person could understand how they worked, and how to fix things if they broke. Today, I doubt that any single person understands everything going on in a contemporary operating system.

      Few people seriously want to go back to the old days, when 24x80 terminal screens that cost as much as a used car were all the computing even well-connected people could have at their homes. I have to admit that I'm nostalgic enough to try and find a good used MicroPDP-11 on eBay, just to say I have one. That being said, I'm not sure how much use I would make of it, and all the weird programming restrictions would surely be archaic. But it would still be nice to have an example of computing history, when we all feltl like elites who might somehow wind up changing the world.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      You're forgetting one important area; science. Science demands fast processors and large capacity first, and reliability/dependibility second. Sure, scientists love to have dependable machines, and such is the reason most run Linux,BSD,SunOS/Solaris, or other such OSes, but they are much more concerned with number crunching on obscenely large data sets. Most of the current advances in science simply couldn't have been achieved without the powerhouse computers the are currently available.

      Although I do ag
  • by davecb ( 6526 ) * <davec-b@rogers.com> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:52PM (#9646210) Homepage Journal
    My former employer has a migration group in Toronto who've done a lot of VMS-to-Unix ports. They therefor have unix equivalents of lots of VMS stuff, at least for Solaris and presumably JDS (SuSE).


  • by ceswiedler ( 165311 ) * <chris@swiedler.org> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @03:58PM (#9646288)
    Don't worry, even if someone erases the writing on the wall, VMS users will be able to see it, along with the 20 previous versions.
  • by pesc ( 147035 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @04:06PM (#9646368)
    This [crash.com] is an old story but it seems fitting here.
  • by Kurt Granroth ( 9052 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @04:16PM (#9646485)
    In an enterprise environment (where VAXen are most often used), it's not feasible to just drop the architecture and switch to another. The amount of code running on the VAX is likely massive and no, it doesn't easily translate into code that works on Unix systems.

    A good intermediate step in any migration is to use the SIMH simulator (http://simh.trailing-edge.com [trailing-edge.com]). SIMH can simulate quite a few systems (including a VAX) at the CPU level. As you may expect, this involves emulating every single CPU instruction... not a very efficient way to run code! However, its saving grace is that modern processors are very fast and old VAX systems are not. Depending on how old your VAX hardware is, you might find that an emulated VAX running on a newer P4/Xeon/Athlon/Opteron will be faster than the stock VAX!

    This doesn't solve the migration problem but it does allow you to run your old code on modern easily-fixable and readily-available hardware. Beats having to get all of your parts off of eBay.

  • by dcavanaugh ( 248349 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @04:17PM (#9646492) Homepage
    The amazing part about 6-years of uptime is that back in the 1980's we took it for granted! Most mainframes can stay up as long as the power reamins on. Only Windows can make us appreciate the value of perpetual uptime.

    One of the reasons we had such uptime was that the software update cycle was very slow by modern standards. Every few weeks, Digital would send us a 9-track tape to update one of our products. VMS was generally once a year between major releases. Anything except an OS update could be installed without rebooting.

    Before we had all of this object-oriented programming, the concept of memory leakage was much easier to debug. Also, VMS would exercise tight control over system resources -- a runaway process might cause a slowdown, but processes were limited in their ability to consume memory and page file space.

    When there was a crash (it happened), we would call Digital customer support. They would actually read the crash dump and determine hardware or software, and either dispatch field service or send out a patch to be installed. It cost a fortune, but it sure beat the modern concept of calling tech. support and dealing with a semi-literate script reader.

    We had three Vaxes in a cluster, attached to a pair of redundant disk/tape controllers. To this day, I hear people talk about the wonderful world of Windows (or even Linux) clusters on Intel boxes. The problem is that without multiple independent paths to your disk drives and something like the distributed lock manager, there is really no protection against the loss of a CPU or a disk controller. Digital had all of this figured out. It must have been quite an accomplishment, because I have seen mostly poor imitations of VMS clusters since that time.
    • "Most mainframes can stay up as long as the power remains on..."

      Heck, some even longer!

      I still remember back in high school in about 1984 or 1985, we got a donation of a DEC PDP 8/e processor, 4K of core memory, two big 512K drum drives (that looked like a refrigerator) and scads of DECtape drives, along with some terminals.

      Well, reading through the system documentation, the cool thing about this machine was that, while it couldn't run without power, it would start right back up where it left off when po
    • by Teancum ( 67324 )
      The problem was that in order to crash a VAX, it had to be intentional. Kinda like you were saying.

      With the help of a couple of buddies of mine during our CS assembly class, we poured through the documentation and wrote a memory worm, I.E. from straight out of Core Wars, we wrote "IMP" but for VAX-11 assembly. This is where you have the program make a copy of itself and transfer machine operation to the new copy you just made. This ends up filling all of RAM with a copy of itself, unless you have memory
  • by Ktistec Machine ( 159201 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @04:18PM (#9646511)
    (Remember DEC?)

    DEC sales guy, to military contractor: "You're not our only customer, you know!"

    Military contractor: "No, but we're one of the few with tactical nuclear weapons."

    Seriously, VMS is/was great. I started working on VMS systems in the early 80s, did my doctoral research on them, and ended up managing a bunch of them for a while, before our department migrated to Un*x. I like to say that VMS is to Un*x as Python is to Perl. One is the ultimate in organization, the other is the ultimate in freedom.

  • by samsmithnz ( 702471 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @04:21PM (#9646540) Homepage
    We're currently migrating a perfectly good Finance system to ASP.NET. Its been on a VAX for 15 years and works fine, but there is just no support left. The probabilty that we will still be using the same ASP.NET in 15 years is very low...
  • I _KNEW_ VMS... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @04:23PM (#9646562) Homepage
    ...I worked withVMS... VMS was my friend... and, Windows NT, you're no VMS!

    Very seriously, in the early years Microsoft kept saying that Windows NT was "similar" to VMS. So when we ran into various problems, I would look for Windows NT equivalents to familiar VMS utilities.

    They weren't there.

    And the five-foot-shelf of well-written, comprehensive, accurate documentation in China Red binders wasn't there.

    And the source code on microfiche wasn't there.

    I have no doubt that in some core internal details the two systems were similar, but at the level of the ordinary user AND the ordinary system manager, VMS was far more mature. I miss VMS, and I miss Digital.

    (I knew Digital... Digital was my friend... and Compaq, I mean HP, you're no Digital.)
    • Re:I _KNEW_ VMS... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by dargaud ( 518470 ) <slashdot2@NosPaM.gdargaud.net> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @05:15PM (#9647076) Homepage
      I landed my first summer job as a VAX programmer at NASA back in '86 as a student. They sat me at a terminal under the documentation. I was terrorized at first by the 20 thick orange volumes and the bending shelf supporting them, afraid that they were going to collapse on me and kill me. I woould move away each time someone came to pick a volume up. When I started using Unix, I couldn't figure anything out in their 'help' system. Man pages ?!? Hah ! Gimme VMS help anytime. A few VAX quotes:
      "Most of the VAX instructions are in microcode, but HALT and NO-OP are in hardware for efficiency."
      "VMS is a text-only adventure game. If you win you can use unix." --W. Davidson.
      "The big difference between UNIX and VMS:

      To do anything on UNIX, you need to know an obscure command.
      To do anything on VMS, you need to know an obscure option to SET."
  • Modern systems? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sql*kitten ( 1359 ) * on Thursday July 08, 2004 @04:32PM (#9646668)
    Modern systems, eh?

    Funny how those obsolete VAX/VMS systems just keep on going. No crashes or reboots, flawless clustering (remember how the Dutch police moved to a new building with ZERO downtime, just by migrating processes from node to node?), rock-solid security, and tools that let admins manage huge networks of servers and workstations with ease. So-called modern systems, like Unix, are now where VAX/VMS was, what, 10 years ago, 15 years ago in some cases. Sun clusters? A joke! The failure of VAX/VMS is one of DEC's marketing department, not their engineers.
  • by linuxhansl ( 764171 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @04:39PM (#9646750)
    I remember working for DEC as a student worker. We had one VAX that supported our entire group (VT-XXX terminals using LSE). Today my laptop is more powerful than that VAX.

    I also remember when we got an upgrade to the "new" VAX line. The old ones used to be these big washing machine types of machines, we had them in the 3rd floor, and remember waiting up there to see how they get the new washing machines up there.
    I was waiting for a while with a colleague, when suddenly a technician came in, carrying a little box under his arm. He put the box on the old washing machine, reconnected some cables and left... Leaving me a my friend open-mouthed.
  • Great System (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kbarrett ( 191847 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @05:00PM (#9646940) Homepage Journal
    VMS was a great operating system (except for I/O throughput). Anyone that was an engineer at DEC would say so. It was COMMON for those systems to stay up for years without a reboot (software upgrades did nto need rebooting), and it had a lot to do with the design of the software and the developers rather than the hardware. The OS had proper protections of resources and privileges, software was released with the constant concern of migration or backward compatibility, and languages all had a common call API -- making it easy to link objects compiled in different languages. Commands were user-friendly, and the GUI (if you wanted it) was X (Motif at that time). Remember that you could also not just control user privs, but about 32 other items such as disk quota, how much memory they could consume, the maximum CPU time before being forced to swap, etc. From a business perspective, a multi-user, time-sharing, reliable, networking (supported TCP/IP, LAT, DECnet, SNA, ...), and popular (DEC was #2 in the world) system was a good choice. The enemy was the mainframe -- a non-dristributed, expensive investment. It's sad developers that did not grow up in this environment will not be able to see it as anything but old technology.

    BTW -- yes, Y2k had little to no impact on VMS. It was designed to be date "correct" from the beginning. Extremely few Y2k patches for VMS appeared, and they were mostly for applications rather than the OS.

    What killed VMS was being tied to the expensive hardware it ran on. When support for a sytem costs you 5-6 figures a year compared to buying a Linux/NT server for $1-$5k brand new, plus the VAX hardware was not compatible with other systems (except for the Alpha perhaps), you had to question it's value in your server room. Don't forget the large power consuption of the older systems as well.

    If DEC had been allowed to release VMS for Intel as a product (which DID exist as a prototype within DEC), it might still be a viable choice today. I understood this did not happen due to the agreement between Microsoft and DEC when they partnered to port applications to NT and cross-train personnel for PC support -- a smart move on Microsoft's part, as it would certainly have prevented NT from catching on.

    Even now Linux and Microsoft strive to achieve the same level of clustering integration VMS enjoyed almost transparently. Unix/Linux is much more flexible and efficient and cost-effective, but this comes at a trade-off of being more technical to use and with less administrative control. Eventually the "lack of applications" problem will fade away.

    Hopefully Linux adoption can return us to those "no Microsoft products in use here" days.

    Keith-who-was-a-VMS-product-developer-and-admin- at -DEC
  • by funwithBSD ( 245349 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @05:14PM (#9647068)
    At least internally:

    I have a screenie of VMS booting into an Itanium based cluster from May 30th, 2003.

    Cant post it, because the "*"'s from the display trigger lameness filter...


    Regression testing is not done yet, so it is only in hands of developers, and some customers for testing, like us.

    There is a rumour that they have an AMD port as well...

  • by deacon ( 40533 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @06:34PM (#9647754) Journal
    Is the inside of a air cooled VAX 9000 [google.com] .

    There was originally a water cooled version, but by using heatsinks that look like a bed of nails, and ducting the cooling air from a blower in the bottom of the unit to impinge individually on each heatsink ( the ducting is removed in the pic ) it was possible to ditch all the water cooling hardware.

    These systems were meant for raised floor installations where chilled air was blown up thru missing floor panels, right into the fan intake.

    And that is not a real service guy... he does not have a static strap!

    It's kind of strange that the article makes no mention of HP Remarketing, which still provides parts and support.

  • by wildman6801 ( 763038 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @06:48PM (#9647893)
    I remember working at a university back in 99, when they decommisioned 2 VAX's. These VAX's were purchased in 86 and was giving an uptime around 13 years, no shutdowns, no reboots, no problems. To thing they replaced them with 6 NT 4 systems. The first week they were up, they had to be reboot multiply times and they became infected with a trojen horse. unfortionalty this first week became a normal week! I guess the university should remember the old statement: "If it's not broke don't fix it!"
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @07:27PM (#9648190) Homepage
    Why would anyone want to migrate to the Inanium at this late date? Now that Intel finally caved and cloned AMD's 64-bit machines, the Itanium is clearly on the way out. That's not where you want to be three years from now. The Itanium is headed for the Intel scrap heap of wierd processors, along with the i860, the i960, and the iapx432. All of which were architecturally better than x86.
  • VAX ROCKS (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mcrbids ( 148650 ) on Friday July 09, 2004 @03:53AM (#9650267) Journal
    I had the experience of working on a Digital Vax 11/750 back "in the day" at an organization of about 200 staff.

    It was huge. It was the size of several washing machines side by side, it its own room, with its own separate air conditioner.

    It had 4 MB *yes, MB* of RAM, and served data to about 50 workstations. (Green on black, Wyze terminals, as I recall)

    This sucker had a GB of Disk Space. It's RAM was accessible via these dinner-plate sized memory 'cards' that slid into the monster case.

    You could swap RAM without powering down the system. You ran a command to remap everything out of that card, and when the command was done, you pulled the card out.

    It would identify bad RAM on the fly and then map around those bad spots, while writing to a log file for the sysadmin. It wouldn't skip a beat when this happened, either.

    The Digital VAX was a true machine - one that, despite its refridgerator size and ~ X86 286 clas processing power, was to the 386 computers common at the time that I was there much like a VW Microbus is to an 18-wheeler Semi.

    The Air Conditioner failed, one time. Eventually, the computer room got too hot and the system crashed. But, when it did so, it remapped all the memory to disk.

    When we brought the disk back up, (after getting the A/C fixed by an HVAC) all the processes running at the time of crash came back up! We had to manually kill them!

    I heard about the story of its delivery. It was actually fell out of the back of the truck on the open highway at about 60 MPH. The agent took it back to the shop, put a new panel on the side, threw it back on the truck, (raising the tailgate this time) and delivered it about 2 hours late. It ran fine when they hooked it up!

    It's simply a degree of engineering lost to today's Windows and *nix raised lusers.

    I will always respect that VAX. It was a machine for and from a different era of computing.
  • by gjallarhorn ( 746951 ) on Friday July 09, 2004 @04:33AM (#9650352)
    ... for fun and profit.

    I remember once back in the late 80s when my then employer took part in a local computer show. We used a brand new MicroVAX II (in the Q3 enclosure with wheels) to demo our 'ware on. Myself and an another tech brought the machine to the show, so we made a deal with some cow-orkers in the sales dept. that they would bring it back. Big mistake.

    Naturally, my tech friend and I carefully loaded the VAX into a station wagon and drove it to the venue, even though it really wasn't far, all the while going carefully over bumps in the road etc.

    The next day, as we were heading out to lunch, we saw (and heard!) a strange spectacle coming up our street. There came the two sales droids happily pushing the VAX ("but it's got wheels so what's the problem!?") over the rough asphalt, over cobblestones and... you get the picture. They were going fast too, the thing was shaking and vibrating so bad we heard it more than saw it.

    Did the thing work after this? Yup, it booted right up without a hickup.

    A friend of mine once dropped a MicroVAX I (he was carrying it down some stairs). The cabinet looked like a train wreck, but after some industrial adjustment with a hammer and some crazy glue for the plastic bits it worked just fine. The QBUS cards were all fine as they came flying out of the enclosure upon impact.

    Oh yeah, and then there was the time at an earlier employer when one of the networking guys accidentaly laid a VAX 11/785 (with UNIBUS cabinet) on its side. He was adding some cable or whatever and removed all the floor tiles (not every second one as he should have) from immediately behind the VAX. This meant the VAX was only resting on some relatively thin metal rods which suddenly didn't have any sideways support anymore so they started giving... you could see the VAX moving slowly backwards and then suddenly crashing into the next VAX (an 8600) behind it.

    Here's the thing: Both VAXen kept running.

    I once decomissioned a MicroVAX II (Q5) that had an uptime of over 4 years. It had been used heavily almost 24/7 (for compiling) until it was replaced by a 3600. No cluster, no redundant hw, just a lone machine built from the best components the computer industry has ever seen.

    You know what they used to say about DEC Engineering? That their motto was: "When in doubt, use the biggest capacitor available". Or what they used to say about DEC Sales? That if you tried to call a DEC salesdriod they would immediately demand: "How did you get this number?!?"

    For a top notch engineering company they sure as hell didn't market their stuff very well. Ah well, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

  • by mratitude ( 782540 ) on Friday July 09, 2004 @12:42PM (#9653397) Journal
    I'm ashamed to realize that I forgot my DEC employee number. :-(

    I went to work for DEC as a computer operator in late '89 at the Cupertino, CA. chip plant where they manufacturered the M-sets for the VAX9000. To the guy who mentioned that "they used to be water cooled". Part of the engineering challenge was an air cooled mainframe from the drawing board. Air cooled mainframes of that class was the goal.

    DECnet being the VMS system data-bus for peripheral devices, virtually any peripheral device, was for me, the "neato" factor. Washing machine sized "hubs", washing machine sized tape drives and refrigerator sized disk cabinet as far as the eye could see.

    I remember using a MicroVAX to "join" a DECnet node cluster so that I could look at certain privileged files on one of bigger nodes. The results? It worked. The outcome? I would have gotten away with it if I had cleanly removed the MicroVAX from the cluster. About a dozen complaints later, the System Managers came looking for the MicroVAX causing a bottleneck. I was able to keep the MicroVAX by letting them know how I did it. Fortunate for me, it wasn't anything more complicated than the fact that DECnet would simply let *any* node join a cluster. ;)

    The Alpha was DEC's savior but they insisted on marketing it as a Windows server platform. Olsen never saw the decline of the mainframe market coming and the DEC marketing geeks were too mainframe market oriented (read that as "high margin revenue, long term contract") and rubbed elbows too closely with government types. This developed a "build it and they will buy it" mindset. Change was sluggish at DEC and that is being kind.

Perfection is acheived only on the point of collapse. - C. N. Parkinson