OpenVMS: An Old Dog Still Doing New Tricks

Though some have thought that OpenVMS is yesterday's operating system, it's actually powering a lot of businesses, showing off its security and reliability.
Thought by many to be long since dead and buried, the OpenVMS operating system persists inside many enterprises.

OpenVMS continues to host critical applications, and in some areas such as disaster recovery, it is even enjoying a renaissance.

Why?

Despite an avalanche of hype about unsurpassed availability, fault-tolerance and security capabilities in UNIX, Linux and even Windows Server 2003, the OpenVMS operating system is leaving them in the dust in test after test. On top of that, real world examples abound of this unfashionable operating system standing up to the most rigorous disaster scenarios.

One online brokerage, for example, had a full-blown outage right before the start of the trading day. A brand-new security guard heard an alarm emanating from a UPS device and panicked. He hit the emergency power-off button, which took down the whole site. Fortunately, the brokerage had a disaster-tolerant OpenVMS cluster and a second data center 130 miles away with a full complement of servers and complete backup of stored data.

''The company operations continued without a glitch,'' says Keith Parris, a disaster recovery specialist at Hewlett-Packard Co. ''They ran through stock market trading that entire day on a single site; powered the first site back up after trading hours were over, and started the data re-synchronization operations required to restore the protection of cross-site data redundancy once again.''

A steady diet of similar stories is convincing Fortune 500 companies to either look again at OpenVMS or postpone their plans to phase out this ''legacy'' system.

After Sep. 11, 2001, for example, word spread that seven disaster-tolerant OpenVMS clusters actually survived the ordeal. That's why most of the big financial services houses, healthcare, telecommunications and big government agencies are firm advocates of OpenVMS. Commerzbank, International Securities Exchange, Veterans Administration, Dow Chemical, Vodafone, and the U.S. Postal Service are just some of the business that rely on it to continue operations.

Surprisingly, the stats of this old OS are impressive.

According to Ken Farmer of OpenVMS.org, the operating system boasts 10 million users worldwide and hundreds of thousands of installations. It also shows annual growth rates of 18 percent over the last few years, and cluster uptimes surpassing the five-year mark. In terms of performance, OpenVMS claims 3,000 simultaneous active users; almost 2 million database transactions per minute (with Oracle); up to 96 cluster nodes (over 3000 processors), and a full cluster capability up to 800 kilometers.

''OpenVMS has moved almost seamlessly from VAX to AlphaServer system and now to HP Integrity Servers,'' says Farmer. ''It is bulletproof, genuinely 24/7, disaster tolerant, remarkably scalable, rock solidly stable and virtually unhackable.''

The unhackable claim was validated at the DefCon 9 Hacker Conference where OpenVMS did so well they never invited it back. It beat out NT, XP, Solaris and Linux, and then was graded as unhackable by the best hackers in the business.

Surprisingly, this new-found fame is being championed by relatively few vendors. On the hardware side, Parris says HP offers business continuity products and services that begin with assessing an enterprise's needs and objectives, and run all the way to full-service data centers and partnerships with niche companies to serve target markets.

International Securities Exchange (ISE) is an HP OpenVMS customer that only adopted it a couple of years ago. It uses HP AlphaServer systems running in an OpenVMS multi-site cluster environment at its New York City headquarters, along with an HP StorageWorks SAN.

''OpenVMS is a proven product that's been battle tested in the field,'' says Danny Friel, CIO at ISE. ''That's why we were extremely confident in building the technology architecture of the ISE on OpenVMS AlphaServer systems.''

ISE boasts the fastest trading speeds in the industry -- less than 0.2 seconds in the New York area. It also has the ability to recover quickly from any failure as it has no single point of failure.

On the software side, a few companies are doing very well servicing OpenVMS clients. Executive Software continues to offer several OpenVMS utilities, such as Diskeeper for OpenVMS, I/O Express, Frag Guard and Filemaster to improve OS performance.

''Some of our Windows customers think we recently brought out an OpenVMS version of Diskeeper, but in actual fact, we built the company on Diskeeper for OpenVMS about two decades ago,'' says Justin Robertson, OpenVMS sales manager at Executive Software. ''We are seeing steady sales of new licenses of our OpenVMS products.''

The reason so many big companies are adopting or sticking firmly to OpenVMS is all about the cost of downtime. The bigger you are, the more money you make. And the more critical a few minutes of downtime become, the easier it is to justify a high-end system like OpenVMS.

After all, the perils of a data center crash are horrible indeed. According to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 93 percent of companies that lost their data centers for at least 10 days filed for bankruptcy within a year. Half didn't even wait that long and filed immediately.

''OpenVMS is probably the best designed and most robust general purpose operating system in existence,'' says Colin Butcher, an analyst with consulting group XDelta Ltd. ''There are quite a few complete systems out there with uninterrupted service uptimes in excess of 15 years.''






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