When people hear mention of the OpenVMS operating system and Alpha-based servers, they typically think ”old” and ”legacy”. And then they think about buying something much more modern.
It might appear very strange for a company to buy a brand new OpenVMS operating system. Yet that’s exactly what the IT department did at the Albert Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia.
The IT department there just bought an Alpha/VMS system and they are installing it this month.
”We have long utilized DEC, Compaq, and HP technologies and found them to be very reliable in meeting the business requirements of our organization,” says Joseph Stenz, an administrator and senior systems programmer at Albert Einstein Healthcare Network. ”There were some IBM mainframe and Windows solutions offered as possible alternatives, but they didn’t justify moving off VMS/Alpha.”
Einstein is not alone in its preference. Despite a distinctly un-trendy image, a lack of interest by the trade press, and access to but a drop of the vast ocean that is the HP marketing budget, Alpha/VMS annual revenues exceed $2 billion. Alpha hardware alone accounts for several hundred million dollars of the total.
VMS is short for Virtual Memory System. Developed in 1977 for DEC’s VAX hardware, it was well ahead of its day as a multi-user, multi-tasking, virtual memory operating system. OpenVMS is a later version that runs on either VAX or Alpha. It will soon be available on HP Integrity Servers running 64-bit Itanium processors in an Intel box.
These days, the terms OpenVMS and VMS are often used interchangeably.
Though not as advanced in years as VMS, Alpha is a family of RISC-based (Reduced Instruction Set Computer an architecture that reduces chip complexity by using simpler instructions), 64-bit CPUs and computer systems originally developed by Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC has since been absorbed by Compaq, which in turn was eaten up by HP). The first Alpha came out in 1992. This 150-MHz 21064-AA model was considered the single-chip equivalent, in its day, of the old Cray-1 supercomputer. A series of later Alpha boxes continued to set the standard for high-speed microprocessors.
But that was way back in the 1990’s, right? Those machines couldn’t hold a candle to today’s wonders.
Actually, Alpha/VMS continues to lead the way when it comes to availability, disaster recovery and security.
”OpenVMS is probably the best designed and most robust general purpose operating system in existence,” says Colin Butcher, a systems architect with XDelta Limited, a systems integrator based in Bristol, England with 20 years experience on OpenVMS. ”If you want serious uptime, you don’t use anything else.”
The OpenVMS/Alpha platform is commonly used in financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, aerospace, power stations and government. Fifty percent of the major telecom provider systems and 80 percent of chip manufacturers utilize it, according to statistics from OpenVMS.org. These organizations speak of it in terms of reliability, availability, solid performance, maturity, and the stability of both the hardware and software.
That’s why the Albert Einstein Hospital Network sticks with the platform. Einstein is a private, not-for-profit organization with six major facilities and outpatient centers. About 6,000 employees — 1,200 of them physicians — are employed at the healthcare organization. Einstein also is a member of the Jefferson Health System, which includes Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Main Line Health System, Frankford Health Care System and Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.
After its recent hardware acquisition, Einstein now has three Alpha-based systems:
In addition, the healthcare network also has two HP MSA1000 Fibre Channel Storage Arrays, which include such features as an MSA1000 Controller, Fibre Channel I/O modules, dual hot pluggable fans/power supplies, two power cables, two SCSI cables to connect expansion enclosures, and 4U cabinets. This Alpha environment is non-clustered.
The newly purchased AlphaServer ES47 is being installed to support several mission critical applications in which reliability and availability are paramount. The primary applications to run on AlphaVMS are Siemens Document Imaging 23.4 for billing purposes, IDXtend 9.0 for physician billing and scheduling, and HBOC Trendstar for decision support/cost accounting. These systems share an enterprise LAN/WAN (Frame Relay/ATM) with over 100 Windows NT/2000 Servers.
So what does VMS have that other platforms don’t?
Einsteins Stenz says it is a proven, mature platform and technology with solid security and sufficient robustness for real-time, business-critical applications. He also believes the platform to be pre-eminent and pioneering in clustering technology and disaster tolerance.
”OpenVMS uptimes can be measured in years,” says Stenz. ”This is certainly preferable to a culture of rebooting and disruption that plague other platforms due to viruses, Trojans, denial-of-service attacks, and endless patching of systems.”
No Hurry to Change
Ultimately, HP plans to phase out Alpha over the next five years or so, replacing it with its Integrity Server, a 64-bit Itanium processor. However, the VMS OS remains a mainstay.
At the recent HP World Conference, HP released OpenVMS version 8.2 for field testing. Meanwhile, the first shipments of OpenVMS/Integrity are scheduled to be released sometime around the end of the year.
Bob Gezelter, a software consultant from Flushing, N.Y., who has tested the new platform, claims Itanium could see VMS moving into a whole new market segment.
”In the past, the enterprise-availability features of OpenVMS have been prohibitively expensive,” says Gezelter. ”The economics of the Integrity platform will bring the costs associated with OpenVMS within the range of the SMB market.”
The Albert Einstein Healthcare Network, though, is in no hurry to adopt HP’s newest offering. Stenz explains that the existing four-year lease on Alpha means they’re adopting a wait-and-see policy to Itanium.
Stenz adds that After seeing where the market is heading, they may adjust their direction after the third year of the lease. ”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.”