DEC’s PDP-11 base is coming under attack from all quarters, a recent conference made clear: Andrea Lord reports. As manufacturers, mainly those of Unix systems, snap at the heels of DEC value-added resellers, DEC is making a belated attempt to appease its previously forgotten PDP-11 user base. An estimated 60,000 PDP-11 users are happy in […]
DEC’s PDP-11 base is coming under attack from all quarters, a recent conference made clear: Andrea Lord reports.
As manufacturers, mainly those of Unix systems, snap at the heels of DEC value-added resellers, DEC is making a belated attempt to appease its previously forgotten PDP-11 user base. An estimated 60,000 PDP-11 users are happy in their RSTS Resource-Sharing Time-Sharing environment, programming contentedly in Basic + but will be forced into change as they demand greater power and performance from their machines. Last month, vendors of migration tools gathered at a conference organised by Kernel Technology Ltd to convince users that their solution was the best option. Peter Dick, member of the DECUS council and part of the RSTS special interest group, reckons that RSTS users now have five options: upgrade to the latest disk drives, cache controllers, tape drives and keyboard interfaces; buy another PDP and link it to the existing machine; rewrite applications from scratch; emulate the RSTS environment on another system under a different operating system; or translate code for a new system.
UK a hot-bed
An option heavily endorsed by manufacturers other than DEC is Unix. Marco D’Angelantonio, Computer Division manager for British Olivetti, acknowledges that Unix may not be the best operating system in the world but adds that this does not matter because it is popular and it provides portability. D’Angelantonio points out that because an application developed for one machine is theoretically portable to any other machine, supplier dependence is reduced, and staff using Unix on one machine can also use that knowledge on any other Unix-based machine. This then is the Unix vendors’ argument for PDP-11 users to move to Unix, but users still have to safeguard their investment in existing applications written in Basic + and data stored under the RSTS environment which is where emulators and translators come into play. The UK has become a hot-bed for emulator/translator development with US software houses paying surprisingly little attention to this potentially lucrative market. The reason could be that UK users are poorer than their US counterparts and simply cannot afford to throw out the old gear and fork out for all the latest software and hardware. In the UK both Systime Ltd and Datavision Ltd have products specifically for the RSTS/Basic + environment and both fiercely contest that theirs is the best. The key difference between the two products is that Systime’s product, Trans-Basic, provides a half-way house for users wishing to move to a Unix machine but wanting to stay within the familiar environment of RSTS and make use of their Basic + programming tools, whilst Universe Basic from Datavision can go all the way and convert applications to a Unix and C environment or act as an emulator. Systime says that its method of emulation cuts down on the cost of complete conversion and the risk, saying that conversion projects are particularly prone to error because all the software is affected in ways not obvious to the user. Datavision provides an Interpreter which supports Basic + language and syntax and produces Basic + source code and allows a Basic + application to run without modification on a Unix system. The Universe Basic translator takes Basic + source code and translates it into the equivalent C source code. Datavision insists that its translator does produce maintainable C code despite rival MS Associates Ltd claim that only its CGen translator does. MS Associates is convinced that portable software, such as C, is the only way forward and attainable for PDP-11 users, and they should translate, preferably using MS tools. In MS’ view, emulators and applications generators lock users in to the software supplier and for its money it would rather be locked into DEC because it’s bigger. Given its lack of a comprehensive solution for its PDP-11 base, DEC itself evidently feels confident that the opinion expressed by MS Associates is one shared by its vendors and users. Ken Surplice, PDP-11 Product Marketing Man
ager for DEC, despite his title seemed to recommend that the gathered users move to VAX. Surplice failed to answer questions such as Will there be a larger PDP-11? Will DEC produce a co-processor to run RSTS on VMS machines? Will there be a DEC developed migration tool? Other than suggesting that the PDP-11 users’ problem was when to migrate to the VAX rather than if, DEC recommended the approach suggested by Peter Dick – to share the workload over a number of PDP-11 and perhaps VAX processors, linking them with DECnet software. DEC also pointed to Census Computer Services Ltd of Wolverhampton which has developed a translator, AutoVAX, to produce VMS VAX Basic source code from the RSTS/E Basic + environment. The feeling at the meeting was that DEC should pay more attention to the problem as its resellers and OEM customers are being poached not only in this country by the likes of Altos Computer, but also in the US. AT&T, Motorola and Sun Microsystems are all claiming that in the US they are successfully wooing a growing number of DEC resellers according to recent report by Computer Systems News.
VAX out of date
The reason put forward for this is that these companies are committed to industry standards such as Unix and VMEbus-based hardware whilst DEC is pushing its proprietary VMS operating system and using the closed VAXBI bus in its new systems. The reason that many resellers still maintain some relationship with DEC is that they wish to protect their installed bases, but according to the competing manufacturers they wish to protect themselves against DEC’s exclusionary moves. Another warning to DEC users comes from Peter Dick who claims that by 1990 VAX users will have the same problem that PDP-11 users are now facing because the VAX architecture is already out of date, having been developed in 1975. As well as challenging DEC to provide a solution for PDP-11 and other DEC customers, Dick has challenged suppliers of migratory tools with a problem designed to test the worth of the available products, the results of which are due to be published this month.