Hardware Today: HP Shows Some OpenVMS Integrity

Monday Mar 28th 2005 by Drew Robb
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HP is porting OpenVMS from its Alpha line to its Integrity line. When is the right time for your organization to make the leap?

The writing has been on the wall for OpenVMS on AlphaServer ever since Compaq gobbled up DEC in the '90s. Or so some of the analysts at the very "best" analyst firms have us believe. When HP ate up Compaq in 2002 the combination was very much in play, but the survival of platform seemed even more unlikely. Yet, the OpenVMS/AlphaServer combo has lived through each transition and to date is still found in hundreds of thousands of server rooms throughout the world.

But the hardware doesn't come cheap. So as part of HP's ongoing hardware consolidation initiative, the company is phasing out the Alpha and porting VMS to its Intel Itanium-based Integrity server line.

"OpenVMS continues to be a strategic platform for HP," said Ann McQuaid, spokesperson for the HP OpenVMS Systems Division. "HP customers can now take full advantage of the availability, scalability, and rock-solid reliability of OpenVMS on the industry-standard Integrity platform."

The latest release of OpenVMS, version 8.2, has been designed to work on both the AlphaServer and Integrity server lines. Alpha applications need only be recompiled and relinked to run on Integrity servers. Common source code can be used to build applications for both environments. In addition, OpenVMS clustering supports AlphaServer systems and Integrity servers in mixed architecture clusters.

HP's goal is to lure the entire user base to its new platform, but the company doesn't expect an immediate rush from Alpha to Integrity. The user base tends to be conservative, so a more gradual transition is anticipated with companies hanging on to their Alphas so long as they have juice.

"Most applications will migrate to Itanium with a minimum of effort, mainly recompilation," says Bob Gezelter, a software consultant in New York with many years experience on OpenVMS. "Programs which contain special Alpha- or VAX-specific code typically require modest changes. Getting a small Integrity system for testing, porting, and sizing purposes is a modest investment with substantial payoff."

Already, 260 OpenVMS applications have been ported to Integrity, and 380 partners have demonstrated their commitment to the port through their represented applications. The two key applications currently missing are Oracle Rdb (currently in beta) and Oracle Server (expected late 2005).

"The same range of applications available today on Alpha should be ready on Integrity servers by the end of 2005," said Mark Gorham, vice president of HP's OpenVMS Systems Division. "Some vertical market applications that have a dependency on the availability of Oracle will quickly become available as soon as Oracle is ready for VMS/Integrity."

The biggest handicap in the Alpha-to-Integrity switch is that porting to OpenVMS on Integrity lacks the performance range it has on AlphaServer. HP began the transition with an intial focus on entry-level systems (i.e., the HP Integrity rx4640, rx2620, and rx1620 servers).

"OpenVMS on Itanium isn't yet supported for big multiprocessor environments," said Colin Butcher, a consultant from the U.K.-based XDelta specializing in OpenVMS and high-availability systems. "The limit on Itanium for now is an 8-way box, while Alphas go up to 64-way."

Butcher has tested OpenVMS on Integrity and been involved in porting various applications from Alpha to the Itanium 2 64-bit platform. Other than needing some time to figure out the Integrity server console interface, he found OpenVMS runs and behaves just as it always does.

"The rx2600s are well-made machines that are easy to work on," said Butcher. "They run v8.2 well and feel comparable to the DS25 class machines."

No Rush

HP's goal is to lure the entire user base to its new platform, but the company doesn't expect an immediate rush from Alpha to Integrity. The user base tends to be conservative, so a more gradual transition is anticipated with companies hanging on to their Alphas so long as they have juice. HP has promised to support the Alpha until at least 2011. However, if its VAX predecessor is any indication, Alphas are likely to linger much longer. Although VAX hasn't had OEM support for years, its still-sizable user base is apparently willing to purchase parts on the second-hand market and even update the code to keep mission-critical applications running. Similar inertia is expected for the Alpha.

"Large Alpha boxes tend to be around for a while, and their users are usually more cautious," said Butcher. "Low-end stuff, on the other hand, in the Alpha DS15/ DS25 and Integrity rx2600 territory, tends to have a shorter cycle and the costs aren't so big."

The changeover will happen, though. HP expects customers to gradually add Integrity/VMS boxes into their Alpha-based clusters. As OpenVMS on Integrity gains their trust, it will start retiring the older machines. "When customers moved from VAX to AlphaServers, it took two years on the low end for volumes to be 50/50 on each platform, and three years on the high end," said McQuaid. "We are expecting similar results in this transition."

>> When to Migrate

VMS Superdome

While the release of entry-level Integrity systems for OpenVMS is a good start, a large percentage of the VMS user base uses midrange and high-end Alphas for high-availability applications or disaster recovery. So how does Integrity look to them?

"My real caution is around running seriously mission-critical stuff, especially on the big machines in the Alpha GS1280 class, not the smaller Alpha DS15 that can run on the Integrity rx2600," said Butcher. "But the big stuff is not the kind of machine that you buy and replace quickly."

HP originally planned to release OpenVMS version 8.2-1 with support for the full line of Integrity servers, including Superdome, some time in the first half of 2006. However, major OpenVMS customers demanded a more rapid time line. As a result, version 8.2-1 is scheduled for September 2005, with support for the Madison-9-based Superdome and rx8620 Integrity servers. HP also plans at that time to provide increased node support of mixed platform AlphaServer and Integrity clusters, and hard partition support for these systems.

"Users will like the performance of the midrange Integrity systems supported in V8.2-1, and I know they will like the price," said Gorham. "Many have stated that the port was very easy and in certain cases ran faster on Integrity than on AlphaServers."

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."

Should I Stay, or Should I Go?

As far as existing Alpha users are concerned, who should move to Itanium and who shouldn't? If everything you need is supported on Itanium, then consider using it from Day One. But be aware that you will be among the first to use it in a production environment.

"It's all about assessing risk and striking an appropriate balance between risk and costs," says Butcher. "Personally, I'd be more cautious in a large-scale, mission-critical environment where a small number of big systems are in use."

Other important criteria to consider in any move from Alpha- to Itanium-based systems are consolidation, performance, and cost. According to HP, some applications receive a performance boost on Integrity compared to the old Alpha hardware. For larger-scale systems, however, such a performance increase is probably a few years away.

"Be aware of support costs for Alpha, which will probably rise above those for Itanium boxes," said Gezelter. "And don't rush to be the first to use the new systems unless you have some pretty good reasons to do so."

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