Duane Harris is CEO of Nemonix Engineering.
In an era of technology turmoil—with news of security breaches, overloaded servers and major corporate and government computer failures headlining the front-pages—there are unexpected islands of calm populated by extremely stable legacy hardware systems. Ironically, some of these oldest citizens of the data center also happen to be the most stable and secure. The extended value these legacy systems still generate in modern computing is a story worth noting—and perhaps learning from.
These servers are still some of the most reliable, secure and indestructible systems in the data center today. At the top of this list of end-of-life machines is hardware running OpenVMS, an operating system built by Digital Equipment Corporation back in 1977, and updated by HP ever since. New and old versions of OpenVMS still run mission-critical applications on legacy hardware, as well as modern, Intel Itanium-based hardware manufactured by HP for some of the biggest names in government and industry.
Below are some of the benefits of OpenVMS that other systems have yet to match:
- Disaster Recovery. OpenVMS’ fault tolerance and disaster recovery features are legend. During the 9/11 tragedy, a major international bank with North American headquarters, located less than 100 yards from the World Trade Center was among a mere handful of companies that remained online—primarily due to its reliance on an OpenVMS-based disaster recovery strategy. The intense heat in that international bank’s New York data center crashed all but OpenVMS-based AlphaServer hardware. The Alphas used server clustering and hard drive volume shadowing to keep the bank’s primary system running off of drives located 30 miles away.
- 100 Percent Uptime. For enterprises requiring 100% uptime, there are few industrial-strength operating systems that can keep up with OpenVMS. For example, one of the world’s largest defense contractors has been using OpenVMS to track missile sites across the world for more than 30 years. The organization has no plans on changing either the operating system or the legacy hardware it runs on. Staying operational is so mission critical that any downtime could be disastrous, and any risk of downtime due to a new platform migration is intolerable. Many of Nemonix’ own OpenVMS customers, in both industry and government, refuse to move from OpenVMS because it simply works. And, it works with minimal intervention and few if any patch requirements. Some of our customers, such as a major U.S.-based chemical company, have commenced the migration to Windows, only to discover that the newer systems are not necessarily more stable ones. In fact, downtime instances have risen sharply in comparison to OpenVMS.
- Low Cost of Ownership. Some users stay with legacy platforms because the cost in dollars and in lost production is too high. For example, nuclear power plants must comply with very tight regulatory requirements due to the potential risk of catastrophic loss of life and property. Regulations require that if any core system hardware is changed, the entire plant must be recertified, not just the new hardware. Plant recertification could cost millions of dollars, in addition to the relatively small cost of the hardware. Similarly, in other commercial enterprises, the cost of new hardware and software is a fraction of the overall ripple effect to business processes, ancillary software licensing, retraining, retesting, recertification, and production down time. Changing to a new platform often has a huge cost footprint, far exceeding the actual cost of the system itself. Additionally, cost is reduced through the more effective management requirements of OpenVMS-based systems. A study by Wipro showed that the costs to manage an environment with 40 servers and 10 database servers were reduced by half on VMS-based systems.
- Stellar Security. Perhaps OpenVMS’ greatest claim to fame is its completely stellar security record. OpenVMS systems provide a level of security that is unmatched in the industry. According to the same Wipro study cited previously, OpenVMS is ten times more secure than other popular operating systems available today,* and has 75-to-91 times fewer unaddressed security vulnerabilities on any given day. Additionally, while many of today’s popular anti-virus programs for newer, non-VMS systems address most infections, they are not 100% effective. Additional vulnerabilities in these newer systems continue to be discovered, potentially enabling malicious compromise or re-infection before security software publishers have a chance to update their virus/malware filters.
In the great rush to upgrade to the latest greatest, it is worth taking note of the value that can be leveraged in your existing legacy hardware/software installations. Often, the business process surrounding the legacy platform is extremely valuable, representing many years of fine-tuning. It is worth pausing to save what is valuable before dismantling the entire architecture. The following are tactics that companies can leverage to extend the value of their legacy systems, and, in some instances, upgrade performance at the same time:
- A hardware system at the end of its factory life cycle is not necessarily at the end of its usefulness to the enterprise. There are technology refresh solutions that can add up to 10 years of productivity back into legacy hardware. Unlike a refurbish, where only apparent problems are solved, refresh addresses the complete system, replacing every known failure point in the hardware and then putting these extremely reliable computer systems under new one year factory warranty, extendable to 10 years. Some of these failure points include fans, batteries, power supplies, electrolytics, etc. You end up with “like new” hardware with up to 10 years of additional warrantied productivity.
- If the hardware must go, consider keeping the software platform in place. The pressure to upgrade hardware is understandable. Legacy hardware faces diminished parts supplies and a shrinking pool of technicians familiar with the aging platform. However, if you run mission-critical systems that rely on the stability and security of the OpenVMS software platform, you don’t want to introduce new risks of downtime or security breaches by migrating to an entirely new software platform. Fortunately, you can migrate to x86 and use emulation software to virtualize your legacy hardware.
- The benefits to emulation can be substantial:
- New hardware without the cost of new software licenses, other than the emulation package itself.
- Lower risk of downtime by keeping existing software applications in place.
- No expensive retraining required—your business processes are effectively unaffected.
Even though we live in a throwaway culture, where the next smartphone is just six months around the corner, the reality is that many of our mission-critical applications—from aerospace and defense, to energy and government—are still hosted, and will be hosted into the foreseeable future, by legacy computers. Enhancing the value of these stalwart systems, whether through refresh or emulation, only increases the efficiency, productivity, and stability of the overall enterprise.
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