Old VMS Databases Never Die

OpenVMS databases dating back to the 1980s are still helping run many large enterprises. And administrators say you'll have to pry them from their cold, dead fingers.
Posted November 29, 2004

Drew Robb

Drew Robb

Like old soldiers, it could be said that old databases never truly die.

But instead of fading away like their military counterparts, some databases conceived in the 1980s are still very much a part of the IT fabric of many large enterprises. Particularly on the OpenVMS platform, products such as Rdb, Ingres and even System 1032 still can be found in various nooks and crannies of the technology universe.

The Rdb database, for example, claims millions of users worldwide -- more than 2,000 companies are using it, some with more than 60,000 users, according to Jim Steiner, senior director of product management at Oracle Inc. of Redwood City, Calif. Oracle purchased Rdb from Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) more than a decade ago. Many thought that would be the end of the popular database, which was then Oracle's major competitor. But Rdb survived and may now be set for a new lease on life, thanks to a renaissance in VMS via its impending port to Itanium 2-based servers.

''I have used SQL Server and Oracle 7 and 8, and there is nothing even close to Rdb,'' says John Creed, database manager at Kittles Home Furnishings Inc. of Indianapolis, Indiana. ''There is one obvious disadvantage though -- you cannot run Rdb on any platform that OpenVMS doesn't support.''

Rdb is a full-featured, relational database management system (RDBMS) that was designed specifically to run on large-scale production applications and high-performance transaction processing environments running on OpenVMS. Despite Oracle's initial announcement that it would only update the software through 1997 and support it until 2001, the Rdb engineering and design team at the company has continued to enhance it. In fact, Steiner says more than 50 percent of the source code has now been developed by Oracle.

Kittles Home Furnishing runs its accounting and merchandizing systems on three Alphas running OpenVMS and an Rdb database. Creed cites high availability, reliability and processing power among the reasons he's sticking with Rdb.

''In the five years I have been at Kittles, we have never had our entire cluster down,'' says Creed. ''For the future, we are looking into the port of OpenVMS to the Itanium server platform.''

Ingres Lives On

Another OpenVMS database that persists in the enterprise is Ingres.

According to Emma McGrattan, vice president of Ingres Development at Computer Associates Inc. of Islandia, N.Y., CA Ingres has several thousands of enterprise users running it on VMS. Ingres is slated to be available on Itanium/VMS within six months, and has just been released to the open source community.

Tyler McGraw, staff database administrator for Bowater Inc, a Greenville, S.C.-based paper and pulp manufacturer with mills in Canada, Asia and the U.S., has worked with Ingres/VMS for many years.

''A decade ago, everybody said I would never be able to stay employed with Ingres, but that hasnt turned out to be the case,'' says McGraw. ''In my experience, Ingres is mostly used by big banks, the power industry, grocery chains and other large enterprises that rely on VMS for a fault-tolerant environment.''

Bowater, for instance, has newsprint machines that are three football fields in length and take a week to start up. More than 50 Alphas run the company's global systems, including two Alpha ES 45s purchased in the last few months. According to McGraw, some systems have not been rebooted for more than 18 months. That's the kind of reliability the company needs to be competitive in a business where the paper itself has become a commodity.

Bowater also runs Oracle for financials, but McGraw finds that Ingres beats it hands down. Making a table, he says takes three or four steps in Oracle and only one with Ingres.

''I can train someone to run Ingres in a couple of hours, but Oracle is much more difficult to learn and maintain,'' he says. ''Feature introduction, though, for VMS runs about eight to 10 months behind the Windows and UNIX versions. I'm hoping the switch to open source will improve that.''

Golden Oldie

Yet another golden oldie in the 'database running on VMS' category is System 1032 by Computer Corporation of America (CCA), based in Framingham, Mass. Though its user base appears to be smaller than that for Rdb or Ingres, there are plenty of loyal users who prefer to remain on it rather than switch to something more current.

Best Computer Services Inc. (BCS) of Lynchburg, Va., for instance, uses System 1032 as the database that processes and mails more than one million statements, invoices and personalized letters each month. Running on Alpha hardware, each database stores up to 800,000 records, then it's on to the next job and another huge influx of records.

Leif Aagaard Jr., a partner at BCS, says programming is much easier in System 1032 than on other platforms -- three to four hours of work translates to two to three days in another environment, he says.

''System 1032 can read flat files, relational database files and accepts just about any kind of data,'' says Aagaard. ''However, the commands are interpretative so it is not as efficient as some platforms in sequential processing.''

Forget About It

Although none of the people above are from New York or New Jersey, when asked about migration they each answered, ''Forget about it.''

''To move off System 1032 would cost us in excess of $300,000 in labor costs alone, not to mention the hardware and software,'' says Aagaard. ''It's not worth about six man-years of effort to convert what is a very stable product that has low maintenance costs and works well.''

McGraw of Bowater agrees. He estimates a bill of $10 million to migrate from Ingres to Oracle. ''While we would never migrate, it is sometimes wise to buy technology for new applications rather than create it from scratch on VMS,'' he adds.

Creed of Kittles Home Furnishings is another who doesn't ever plan to move.

''There would be no ROI in moving off Rdb,'' says Creed. ''Moving to another database would be a giant step backwards in performance, ease of management, and reliability.''

Interestingly, the longer you leave it, the smaller the chances of you actually getting off an old database, should you ever want to. Many of these databases were subject to the ''legacy'' propaganda campaign of the 1990s, yet the very tools developed to migrate from these systems to SQL Server or Oracle can now validly earn the ''legacy'' label.

''The longer it goes, the harder it is to migrate as the migration tools are now out of date and nobody plans to update them,'' says Rob Enderle, an analyst with San Jose-based Enderle Group. ''As it can be a huge amount of labor and a lot of cost to move, it comes down to, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'.''

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