DEC, OpenVMS, Miles Davis and Being Swayed by the Cool
I joined my first startup in 1989. I was the fourteenth employee. Down the street in the Old Mill was the headquarters of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). They had 118,400 employees, which was their peak employment year. In the late 1980s, DEC was dominating the minicomputer market with their proprietary, closed, custom software. DEC was a cool company and the fifth company to register a .com address (dec.com); a decade before NetScape would go public. DEC was one of the first real networking companies outside of the world of SNA. Radia Perlman inventor of spanning tree worked at DEC. Most recently her continued influence on networking can be seen in the development of TRILL.
The continued rise in microprocessor capabilities would prove to be an insurmountable challenge for DEC. DEC had built over the years a massive, closed software operating system with a non-extensible control plane that was extended across proprietary hardware. This architecture would be eclipsed by the workstation and client/server evolutions.
To counter the these threats, DEC considered openning their software ecosystem by adding extensibility and programmability including a standardized interoperability mechanism (API). The idea of opening the DEC software ecosystem would culminate in 1992 when DEC announced an significant update to their closed, proprietary operating system. The new software release would be called OpenVMS or Open Virtual Memory System. The primary objective of OpenVMS was allow for many of the different technology directions in the market to become one with the DEC ecosystem. It made a lot of sense. In 1992, workstations were the hot emerging trend of the market, the Internet was only two years removed from ARPANET control. Windows 3.0 was two years old and anyone who used Win 3.0 knows it was a huge improvement over 2.1. The rack server was a decade away. Some companies still chose OS/2 over Windows. The Apple Newton (i.e. iPhone) was a year away from release. Here is a summary of DEC’s OpenVMS release:
OpenVMS is a multi-user, multiprocessing virtual memory-based operating system (OS) designed for use in time sharing, batch processing, real-time (where process priorities can be set higher than OS kernel jobs), and transaction processing. It offers high system availability through clustering, or the ability to distribute the system over multiple physical machines. This allows the system to be “disaster-tolerant” against disasters that may disable individual data-processing facilities. VMS also includes a process priority system that allows for real-time processes to run unhindered, while user processes get temporary priority “boosts” if necessary.
OpenVMS commercialized many features that are now considered standard requirements for any high-end server operating system. These include:
- Integrated computer networking (originally DECnet and later, TCP/IP)
- Symmetrical, asymmetrical, and NUMA multiprocessing, including clustering
- A distributed file system (Files-11)
- Integrated database features such as RMS and layered databases including Rdb
- Support for multiple computer programming languages
- A standardized interoperability mechanism for calls between different programming languages
- An extensible shell command language (DIGITAL Command Language)
- Hardware partitioning of multiprocessors
- High level of security[28
In 1997, five years after announcing OpenVMS, DEC was acquired by Compaq; a personal computer company.