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Thursday, 20 August 2009 18:24

Gone but not forgotten part one - VAX/VMS

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Like anyone who has been in IT for a reasonable length of time I've worked with technologies that have lapsed, been superseded, died off or just simply gone out of vogue. Yet there are some my heart yearns to see again.

Don't get me wrong; I love what I do and the joy of modern tech. I'm a Linux man, a server and database guy, but there are some products and platforms I've worked with that were just that little bit special during their time in the spotlight.

Not every memory is a fond one; I never warmed to Novell Netware and I never found Visual C++ to be particularly visual. I didn't take to Lisp and I wish death upon Microsoft Access.

However, let me tell you today and the next two days about three bits of tech I’d love to see again starting with the VAX/VMS operating system.

Don’t get me wrong: VMS still exists in the form of OpenVMS but it’s just not quite the same. If you think Linux has a hard time getting business buy-in consider how much less the name recognition of VMS is in this modern day.

Nevertheless, the VAX/VMS was once on top of its field. Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) had much to be proud of. Its PDP and VAX minicomputer lines were highly popular among scientific and engineering communities across the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.

The DEC Rainbow 100 was an early dual-processor system that ran CP/M and MS-DOS and sported a delightful keyboard. The Rainbow form factor was re-used in later text terminals.

It was even a DEC PDP system that was chosen for the development of UNIX, the forerunner of Linux.

In 1998 DEC was acquired by Compaq before Compaq was in turn swallowed by Hewlett-Packard four years later.

Before this series of takeovers DEC's biggest invention was the VAX series of computers, with a complex machine code instruction set and facilities for virtual memory addressing.

The operating system used was VMS, a sturdy environment with file versioning and a range of distinct privileges, not to mention a rich command-line instruction language.


The man behind VMS, Dave Cutler, went on to produce Windows NT for Microsoft and similarities can be found, in concepts if not in implementation.

I first encountered VMS on a VAX during my two-week year 10 work experience period in 1987 as per the secondary school curriculum.

I grew up in a mining town and the local mines were always popular choices for work experience, particularly among those likely to take up trade apprenticeships.

I gained admission to take work experience at one such mine, in the EDP - or Electronic Data Processing - department, as IT was then known.

I was transfixed by the multi-user environment experienced through dumb text terminals, replete with electronic mail and a split-screen chat program called phone.

My family obtained our first home computer in 1984, the year I began high school. I took to the venerable Commodore 64 like a duck to water, learning programming through osmosis as I typed in program listings from books and magazines.

Yet, despite this I always assumed I'd take up accounting as a profession because this was the consistent recommendation from career advisors who seemed to assume a mathematical bent only lead in one direction.

From mid 1987 that thought was no more! My subsequent career including even this very column for iTWire is a direct result of that formative experience, my path set by two weeks spent at Lemington Mine (since merged into the Rio Tinto/Coal and Allied Hunter Valley Operations super-mine.)

I began studying Computer Science at University in 1990. The central University facilities were like an old friend, the VAX/VMS combo. Ever keen to know more I devoured VMS manuals.

Yet, soon I would be courting a new love.


The Computer Science department alone possessed a UNIX machine, a Gould, and we were to use it from second year. There was no hand-holding and no course in UNIX itself. It was purely the environment we were expected to use to achieve our real assessable goals.

Armed with a wonderful tome from McGraw Hill I learned UNIX and its zanily-named commands which stood in stark contrast to the rigid consistency of the VMS structure.

In the arrogance of youth I developed an elitist view that the VAX was a system for the hoi polloi, while my esoteric UNIX and its hacker-filled attractions was the way of the future.

I suppose I was right in a way, with many a VAX being replaced with UNIX systems over the following decade.

I landed my first full-time job during my final year exams and I began working in an aluminium smelter's automation department in December 1992.

The choice of platform was the VAX and I was reunited with the system I had neglected despite having given me such pleasure only five years prior.

I made command-line scripts to implement my favourite UNIX instructions - things like cd and ls and w and make.

The smelter acquired some Ultrix systems - DECs UNIX implementation - which integrated with SCADA systems and provided real-time trending of important plant data. I naturally gravitated towards these and became their administrator.

In 1994 I left the smelter and took my second job, back at my alma mater as a UNIX systems administrator, the UNIX revolution having begun.

I never laid hands on a VAX again – at least not to maintain one. I was one of a small team who ported the University’s general populace from VMS to Solaris.

Yet, looking back, I often think I'd like to see a VAX just one more time.

I don't know if it is the memories of a simpler time, the attraction of youth, or maybe even the feeling of embarrassment now and then when I look back at how little I really knew in my first ever job and what a different performance I’d give now.

Whatever the reason I've often mused I'd love to see a VAX again, to feel that VT220 keyboard, to delimit directory names with square brackets, to script in DCL again.

What do you think? What are some of your early computing memories? What would you like to see again? Tomorrow I’ll tell you another of mine.


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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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