How VMS Got a Better Deal than MPE

The operating system built for DEC minicomputers mirrors the HP 3000’s OS in many ways. Most important was the goal of getting a business OS into the market during the 1970s, servicing commercial computer users. VMS was also built to support science and technology computing, which was really more of a matter of who Digital chose to sell to. HP tried to sell MPE to the sciences and tech firms, but DEC got the applications to embrace those markets.

It turns out to be a big advantage for VMS. Once the Unix drumbeat got loud, the OS was being called OpenVMS, in the same way that HP tried to rebrand the HP 3000 with an “e” at the front of the number. Not “e” for excellent, but e for Web-ready. It doesn’t make a lot of sense now, that naming, but at the time “e3000” was clever paint on a pony that already had plenty of victories around the business track.

Years earlier, HP changed the suffix behind the latest MPE. Instead of MPE/XL, it was MPE/iX. The new letters were there to show the OS had Posix bones. That was an era when putting any “ix” at the end of anything was supposed to give it good coverage. They were the times when proprietary operating systems were in full rout, except at IBM.

Leaning away from open Windows

OpenVMS wasn’t special enough to save DEC from being purchased by Compaq, though. DEC had no small business products to rival the Compaq servers, but it had plenty of customers running corporate and business organizations. Selling to business, especially overseas, was supposed to be easier for Compaq once it acquired the Digital salesforce.

Neither Digital or Compaq were Microsoft, however. A few years later, Compaq had to wade into the arms of an HP that was eager to be the biggest computing company in the world. Size, that HP believed, really does matter.

While HP had opened its exit door for MPE, Digital OpenVMS customers were looking over their shoulders at a Windows-heavy HP now being run by Compaq executives. HP did put money into VMS for more than a decade after HP stopped selling 3000s. Then they sold the rights to the OS to a private company staffed by former DEC/HP people. The company, VSI, has now served VMS support calls for HP since 2017.

Prowess a-plenty

OpenVMS customers are just as ardent as MPE brethren about the prowess of their OS. The ecosystem, as HP liked to call the collective of vendors and hardware providers around its 3000, was larger for the OpenVMS boxes of various flavors. First there was the PDP hardware, then VAX, and after HP’s three years of engineering, an Integrity-Itanium release of OpenVMS. All of those were proprietary hosts, however. That’s hardware that Intel and AMD have reduced to footnotes in the business computing legends.

VSI’s port of OpenVMS is a fascinating look at an alternative future for 3000 owners. The company is thick with tech legends like Chief Technology Officer Clair Grant. The labs in Bolton, Mass. are just 15 minutes down MA-117 from the DEC mothership of Maynard. Funded by the investment of a multinational business software corporation, VSI started with a close relationship to HP.

Size did turn out to matter to the future of OpenVMS. The crown jewel of Digital’s throne room shimmers with caretaking that MPE might only envy from HP. Enough of the sciences, technology firms, and businesses like manufacturing chose DEC to give it a massive lead in the installed base count over MPE/iX. HP had to choose something significant and legendary to preserve from Digital when it bought Compaq. That decade of OpenVMS development in HP’s labs — those offices up the road in Massachusetts — give VMS experts the means to build and then move the support talent for a stable legacy system.

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

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