In the era of cloud computing, how do you maintain a server built for timesharing?
For anyone wondering if companies like Hewlett-Packard have a warehouse full of minicomputers and mainframes, just in case the world's largest banks and defense contractors ever need them, the answer is yes.
"It's very true. We still have a client base that's still going from the VAX 6000 and up, and very much in the Alpha technology," said Jim O'Grady, a vice president working in asset management at HP Enterprise's global financial services division.
He's referring to big iron from the former DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation), which was a leader in business computing during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Compaq bought DEC in 1998, and then HP bought Compaq in 2001.
Part of O'Grady's job is to ensure that when customers with 30-year-old service contracts come calling, his team of account managers and engineers has the necessary parts and software to uphold their end of the deal. Presumably IBM does something similar; the people who'd know could not be reached for comment this week.
"For folks that have applications that are linked to the hardware environment, it's very different for them to get off it. So we'll work with clients especially when they go beyond the end-of-service life," O'Grady said. "It's mainly government, discrete manufacturing, and banking."
The equipment is stored at a former DEC manufacturing facility in Salem, NH. Three former DEC-hands work there as technicians. When customers send in hardware for repair, re-homing, or recycling, "They have a little fun to see if their technician ID is on that machine," O'Grady joked.
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"Any equipment that's demand-constrained, or supply-constrained in the market, we'll keep it here... I don't think there's anything we haven't been able to find for clients," he said, adding that sometimes he works with museums and related organizations for assistance.
"The VAX 6000, these are 30-year-old machines. We've got more than several clients that we're helping out long-term. Everyone does not have enough budget dollars to go around to innovate in new technology," so they focus on stabilizing what already works, he explained. "As long as they can keep the hardware environment viable then it works for them."
O'Grady said customers are welcome to test equipment at the HPE location, and that HPE engineers can help connect obsolete systems to modern ones.
But he acknowledged some problems with that approach. Every dollar put aside to keep an obsolete machine running is a dollar not put toward modernizing it. "At some point, it's going to run out of viability. You have to pay the piper someday," he said. "The emotional attachment to the VAX equipment sometimes is striking. Sometimes when we get this equipment back they have ceremonies."
Small businesses such as Logical and Strobe Data sell hardware that emulates these older DEC systems. Logical focuses on the VAX and PDP-11 series; Strobe does PDP-11 along with the HP-1000 and Data General Nova/Eclipse systems. (Data General became part of EMC in 2002, and of course EMC was sold to Dell in 2015.)
Logical's Lynda Jones, herself a former DEC engineer, said she hears from customers that HP support isn't always what they need. "They can give you a piece of hardware but they no longer offer the software support that goes along with it," she observed.
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"The cost of rewriting the software is always greater than the hardware. The risk that something will go wrong in that rewrite is quite high," so it's easier for large organizations to retool a plant or, in the case of [the U.S. Air Force project] Milstar, keeping satellites in orbit. Boeing is experiencing that right now, she added.
Customers also contact specialists not for hardware but simply for expertise. "More than once I've had a panic phone call because the last guy [who knew how to maintain legacy systems] died," she said. "If they're planful, then they're working ahead of that eventuality."
What nobody sells so far is an Itanium system. "Itanium is about to go end-of-life, but it will be years before there's an emulator. The IP is not a settled issue," Jones said. Her team is considering how to make a system that's legal and fast.
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