Digital Equipment's Vax, the machine that epitomised the minicomputer era, is about to go into retirement after 20 years of service.
Customers now only have until the end of September to place new orders for the Vax 4000, MicroVax 3100-88 and MicroVax 3100-98, which are currently owned by Compaq following its acquisition of Digital in 1997.
The last shipments will be delivered in December, and after that users will be expected to buy Alpha-based machines, although they will still run Vax's OpenVMS operating system (OS). The boxes also support Compaq Tru64 Unix (formerly known as Digital Unix) and Microsoft's Windows NT.
However, Mary-Ellen Fortier, Compaq's director of OpenVMS, confirmed that Vax hardware will be supported until at least 2010, depending on customers' requirements.
"We will continue to support mixed clustered architectures so they can continue to do the work they are doing on Vax. [Customers] can run them side by side with Alpha Servers or they can trade in their Vax and get a substantial discount and upgrade service," she said.
But although the Vax will be no more, its spirit will live on in OpenVMS. "We have no plans to discontinue OpenVMS. It's an extremely strong and profitable business for Compaq, accounting for $3.5bn to $3.9bn annually," said Fortier.
John Smith, a senior business manager with worldwide responsibility for government and public sector accounts for Compaq's OpenVMS Systems and Software Group, claimed that the supplier has committed to supporting OpenVMS for the next 20 years.
This is something that users such as Paul Godfrey, a Vax devotee for 10 years, will be relieved to hear. Godfrey is a systems designer at H&S Aviation, an aircraft service and repair shop in Hampshire.
Although he said he will miss Vax, he believes that Alpha-based machines represent the way of the future. "I think I would be more upset if it was getting rid of VMS," he said.
Although the death of Vax had been widely expected for at least two years, Fortier believes Digital had been thinking about discontinuing the line for as long as 10 years.
She claimed that the decision to axe it has been taken now because nothing more can be done to boost the functionality of the Vax processor, and because customers are starting to move to 64bit systems. This means that demand has fallen and the hardware is no longer as relevant to businesses as it was.
Long-time Digital observer Terry Shannon, who publishes the Shannon Knows Compaq report, said that Compaq was quite right to put Vax out to pasture. The last Vax chips were built and warehoused several years ago, he explained, and Compaq had exploited the architecture to its limits.
"Customers have known this was coming for more than two years. The world has moved on to 64bit architectures and, as such, it makes little sense to continue the investment in a 32bit architecture," he said.
But Shannon acknowledged that many users would be sad to see Vax being "pasture-ised", as he put it, even though the system will live on for the time being. There are still 200,000 in use today, just as there are PDP-11s still around, he said.
"What a shame," added Mike Hyland, IT manager at Quantel, a Newbury-based TV and film editing systems supplier. The company has used Vax machines since 1981 and found them to be highly reliable. "You just keep using them and the return on investment is excellent," he said.
Colin Butcher, a board member of Digital's user group Decus UK, and technical director at systems and network consultancy XDelta, said: "A lot of people will miss the Vax and many of them run important applications on it as it's a very reliable system."
Ahead of its time
He added that the machines have also built up a reputation for being highly stable, and when launched in 1977 were deemed to be way ahead of their time.
For example, they were the first machines that were capable of being clustered, giving Digital the reputation as a pioneer of the technology for many years. In fact, a commonly used expression is "Old Vaxes never die, they just get clustered."
The first 32bit Vax 11/780, which ran the VMS OS, was launched by Digital's president and founder Ken Olson on 25 October 1977, following 300 man years of development.
At the time, most computers still used 16bit addressing, so the Vax was hailed as major breakthrough. Incidentally, the name Vax is an acronym for Virtual Address eXtension, which referred to the move from a 16bit to a 32bit architecture.
It was also the first time that designers had built hardware and software together from the ground up, making the system tightly integrated and providing unprecedented levels of reliability, flexibility, scalability and data integrity.
And all this meant that Vax was the first computer to combine the functionality, capacity and performance of a mainframe with the interactive capabilities, flexibility and price/performance of a minicomputer.
The second generation range, the Vax 8600, followed in October 1984, and provided about 4.2 times the performance of the older systems. The MicroVax was launched in the same year and the high-end 8800 followed two years later.
By 1986, however, Digital had started work on a Risc processor, which manifested itself as the Alpha chip in the early 1990s. After a slow start, shipments of Alpha-based machines began to take over from Vax systems in 1995, and by the end of 1998, annual Vax revenues had dwindled to $200m compared with Alpha's $4bn.
Never say die
But it is still not quite the end of the road for Vax. If you happen to have an old machine in the cupboard that you no longer need, you can always pass it on to the thriving and lucrative second-hand market, which sells and supplies any number of spare parts and even entire systems.
Compaq's Smith is convinced, however, that the Vax "never dies", and to illustrate his point, cites the case of one user who welded the casing of his Vax/VMS machine together so that no-one could get into the box.
Not that it mattered. No-one ever needed to get inside because the system has been running happily for the last 10 years - one of the reasons why Vax is still so well-loved.
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