OpenVMS survives and thrives

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

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 Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia. "There were some IBM mainframe and Windows solutions offered, but they didn't justify moving off of Alpha."

Einstein Healthcare will be installing a new AlphaServer ES47 this fall. It will be the third VMS/Alpha system within the 6,000-employee campus encompassing six major facilities. Einstein Healthcare also has over 100 Windows NT/2000 servers in an enterprise LAN/WAN (frame relay/Asynchronous Transfer Mode) environment.

Einstein Healthcare's Alpha-based systems include an ES47 Model 2 OpenVMS machine with two 1-GHz Alpha EV7 processors with 1.75MB Level 2 cache (four-processor capable) and 4GB of error checking and correcting memory. There's also an HP AlphaServer ES47 Model 2 OpenVMS enterprise server with a memory expansion up to 8GB, and an HP AlphaServer ES47 Model 2 OpenVMS enterprise server with memory expansion up to 8GB and optional RAID memory support.

Einstein hasn't clustered its Alpha environment, which also includes two HP MSA1000 Fibre Channel storage arrays.

The ES47 supports several applications that demand reliability and high availability: Siemens Document Imaging 23.4 for billing purposes; IDXtend 9.0 for physician billing and scheduling; and McKesson/HBOC Trendstar for decision support and cost accounting.

Einstein Healthcare isn't the only user gravitating toward Alpha. Annual sales of Alpha hardware add up to several hundred million dollars, according to HP.

Rising to the Challenge

A major impetus behind the VMS/Alpha revival appears to be its performance during the Sept. 11 attacks on New York's World Trade Center.

According to David Freund, an analyst at IT research firm Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H., several financial services businesses in the towers and numerous others in the immediate vicinity had OpenVMS disaster-tolerant clusters with backup sites outside the area. Every one of them had their operations running just moments after the catastrophe, says Freund.

Following that awful day, OpenVMS seems to have gained new prominence. In some IT circles, it's now regarded as the creme de la creme in disaster recovery and high availability, according to users and analysts.

"OpenVMS uptimes can be measured in years," says Stenz. "This is certainly preferable to a culture of rebooting and disruption that plagues other platforms due to viruses, Trojans, denial-of-service attacks and endless patching of systems."

OpenVMS Globalization

It isn't just U.S. companies that are remaining on or rediscovering OpenVMS. The operating system has maintained a strong hold overseas, according to Colin Butcher, a systems architect at systems integrator XDelta Ltd. in Bristol, England, who has 20 years' experience on OpenVMS for clients such as HP, Ikea International AS, the U.K.'s air traffic control service and the U.K. National Health Service.

When Sony Corp. opened its Barcelona Center for Distribution (BCD) in Spain 12 years ago, it trusted its business-critical systems to VAX/VMS. The facility is highly automated and runs 24 hours a day, six days a week in order to keep up with tight deadlines for the distribution of Sony and Aiwa products throughout southern Europe.

Daniel Sanchez Reina, BCD's IT manager, lists the usual reasons for choosing the operating system: its robustness, reliability, powerful features, high performance and memory management.

"You get true clustering on VMS as the number of machines becomes transparent to you; they work as a single unit," says Sanchez Reina. "This is made possible by the fast, powerful and clusterwide lock manager."

In 1998, BCD ported VMS from VAX to Alpha. It now runs a three-machine Alpha/VMS cluster in conjunction with a customs system and optical archive running on Windows 2000 Server, an HP StorageWorks EVA 5000 storage array and an Oracle Corp. database.

Future Plans

How much longer will OpenVMS remain viable?

"Our intention is to keep on using VMS until doomsday, as long as it keeps innovating and providing the highest standards in the IT world," says Sanchez Reina. "We have no plans to migrate to VMS on Itanium, at least for now."

That seems to be the consensus among IT shops: Stay on Alpha, milk it for all it's worth, and keep a close eye on developments in the VMS/Integrity server space.

Like BCD and many other users, Einstein Healthcare has no immediate plans to migrate. Stenz says he has a four-year lease on Alpha hardware and is unlikely to change during that period.

"We are going to adopt a wait-and-see approach to developments on Itanium and VMS," he says.

Meanwhile, HP has had OpenVMS Version 8.1 in field testing on Itanium for many months. At the recent HP World Conference, it released Version 8.2 for testing. The company expects the first shipments of OpenVMS/Integrity servers either late this year or early next year.

Few anticipate significant problems in the system or in porting applications from Alpha to Itanium.

"The OpenVMS APIs are so correct architecturally that the operating system has not required substantial change since its original design in 1977," says Bob Gezelter, a software consultant in New York who has tested the new system. "OpenVMS on Integrity is a case of seamlessly assimilating a new processor, not using a high-tech shoehorn to force an old architecture into an ill-fitting shoe."

XDelta's Butcher has also tested Itanium/VMS. Other than needing some time to figure out the console interface, he says he found that VMS seemed to run and behave just as it always does.

Butcher does, however, express some reservations. "Performance might be an issue at the moment," he says. "The big Alphas probably outperform the larger Itanium boxes, but that will change with time."

Few Alpha users are in a hurry to make the switch.

"After seeing where the market and technology direction is heading, we may adjust our direction after the third year of our lease," says Einstein Healthcare's Stenz. "Depending on how things play out on Itanium 64 and VMS, we could very well then migrate to that architecture or extend/augment our ES47."

Robb is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. Contact him at

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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