VAX Users See the Writing on the Wall

Though still widely used and very reliable, DEC's legacy to IT is aging

The VAX system at Triumph Components has been in use since about 1996, and information systems manager Dan Blackshear couldn't be happier with it. There's just one problem: He's got to scrap it.

The system is fast, works well with Windows and "fits into the modern environment very cleanly" at the El Cajon, Calif.-based aerospace parts maker, said Blackshear. "But it's a dinosaur, and eventually it has to go," he said.

It's been four years since the former Compaq Computer Corp. shipped the last new VAX, but Hewlett-Packard Co., which acquired Compaq, estimates that there are about 150,000 to 175,000 of the systems in use in the U.S.

IT managers interviewed about VAX and its OpenVMS operating system said the machines rarely fail. Geoffrey Ive manages 150 VAX systems, including one bought in 1986 and others purchased in 1990 and 1995 by his South African company, Eskom Transmission. Some of the systems have run for more than six years without a reboot. Reliability is "extremely high," he said.

Born in 1977

A reminder of VAX's advancing age came last week when Nemonix Engineering Inc. in Holliston, Mass., announced that it was starting a 24-hour support line for the system. "That's in response to a marketplace that really can't afford to get rid of them," said Beth Bumbarger, Nemonix's CEO. The company, which makes custom hardware components for the VAX, employs many people who once worked at Digital Equipment Corp., the company that developed the VAX in 1977, long before it was acquired by Compaq.

Bob Blatz, HP's director of marketing for OpenVMS, reaffirmed the company's VAX commitment. "We intend to continue supporting that line -- we have no plans to stop it," he said. HP plans to port OpenVMS to its Itanium-based Integrity server line by the end of the year.

Keeping aging vax systems running is becoming increasingly costly.
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Keeping aging vax systems running is becoming increasingly costly.
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Users will be under increasing pressure to migrate as HP's maintenance costs increase and the reliability of the systems declines. Blatz estimates that the number of VAX systems in use is shrinking by about 10% each year.

But HP is continuing development of OpenVMS, and Blatz said that for the Integrity server, the company has more than 650 applications committed from 300-plus independent software vendors. And in the major OpenVMS markets -- financial services, government, health care and telecommunications -- he expects nearly 100% of the applications will be ready for porting to Integrity.

Still, no porting effort will be easy or inexpensive. Users are often running legacy applications that have been heavily customized. Source code may be missing, and specific hardware calls to VAX systems may have been written, complicating a migration. That's a problem Blackshear faces; he estimates that porting to another system will cost $200,000.

One migration option is using Software Resources International SA's VAX emulator, Charon-VAX. The Geneva-based company was a former Digital software engineering center that was formed through a buyout.

One Charon-VAX user is Midwest Microwave Inc., a components maker in Saline, Mich., that was running a 10-year-old VAX machine until last year. It has moved OpenVMS and its manufacturing resource planning system to a system with dual Athlon processors, which are made by Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

"There is absolutely no migrating or porting or code conversion," said Barry Treahy, Midwest's vice president and CIO. The application "thinks it's on a VAX," he said.

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