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OpenVMS survives and thrives

The 'legacy' operating system maintains a substantial base in large organizations

By Drew Robb
November 1, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - OpenVMS was supposed to have died a slow and unheralded death sometime during the 1990s. Labeled passe by analysts and "legacy" by Windows and Unix enthusiasts in the wake of the distributed computing boom of the '90s, it hardly merits a mention in the computer press. Yet the operating system has stubbornly refused to go away.
Digital Equipment Corp. developed the Virtual Memory System in 1977 for VAX hardware as a multiuser, multitasking operating system. (Digital was eventually absorbed by Compaq Computer Corp., which merged with Hewlett-Packard Co. in 2001.) OpenVMS is a later version that runs on VAX and Alpha and will soon be available on HP Integrity servers, part of the company's 64-bit Itanium line.
One of the perceived drawbacks contributing to the aura of doom around OpenVMS was the operating system's tie to expensive proprietary hardware -- first VAX, then Alpha. But now that Integrity servers -- which also support HP-UX, Linux and Windows -- run OpenVMS, its users will benefit from the same manufacturing economies of scale that users of those other operating systems do.
Even now, however, annual OpenVMS-related hardware, software and services earn in excess of $2 billion annually for HP, and more than 400,000 VMS systems are still operating worldwide, according to a source at the company. Those numbers are backed up by Ken Farmer at, an independent Web site dedicated to OpenVMS users. He estimates that there are 10 million users worldwide and hundreds of thousands of installations of OpenVMS.

Daniel Sanchez Reina, IT manager at Sony Corp.'s Barcelona Center for Distribution
Daniel Sanchez Reina, IT manager at Sony Corp.'s Barcelona Center for Distribution
"There were about 456,000 VMS systems almost a decade ago, and after a slight yearly decline for a few years, the operating system is now staging a revival," says high-performance computing guru Terry Shannon, a 22-year VMS veteran in Amarillo, Texas, who wrote the original VMS user guide. "Some of the folks who drank the Windows Kool-Aid and dumped VMS for Windows are now coming back."
When the Chips Are Down
OpenVMS/Alpha systems are commonly used by financial services, health care, manufacturing and aerospace companies, as well as utilities and state lotteries and other government agencies. HP says that 50% of major telecommunications providers and 80% of chip manufacturers use OpenVMS. Users say that they've stuck with OpenVMS because the operating system has provided all of the features they've needed, along with tested stability.
"We chose VMS due to reliability, availability, solid performance, the fact that it's mature and proven, and the stability of both the hardware and software," says Joseph Stenz, senior systems programmer/administrator at Albert

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