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Old VMS Databases Never Die

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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


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


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


”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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