Users mourn Vax passing

Nostalgic users regret the passing of the Digital VAX, whose production has been officially terminated by Compaq.

Nostalgic users regret the passing of the Digital VAX, whose production has been officially terminated by Compaq.

The company will cease taking orders for the midrange family at the end of September and the last VAX machines will ship on December 30.

Richard Naylor of communications company Citylink in Wellington says the machine was ahead of its time in several respects.

“It was a wonderful architecture. Till the VAX came along, program sizes were severely limited. The VAX had virtual memory [one of the earliest implementations of this technique], and all the machines [in the range] were binary-compatible.”

One of its great features, says Naylor, was the run-time software library – a collection of pre-packaged routines that any program would automatically pick up. Before that, a developer would have to laboriously link a subroutine from a library to all programs that were to use it.

“In the late 80s, though, it ran out of physical address space. The engineers never thought you could possibly need more than a few gigabytes.” As a result, radically new models were designed, he remembers.

“It had symmetrical multiprocessing, clustering, disk shadowing – which in time gave us RAID,” he notes.

“And remember [the VAX application] All-in-One? That was just about the first of the ‘office automation’ suites” - the genre that begat Microsoft Office and its present-day rivals.

One of the reasons Compaq has done so well in the market, Naylor suggests, is because it had all those good Digital engineers, trained on the VAX.

The VAX can even claim to be a precursor of the Internet, he says; “Before the Internet, we used to network [among different organisations] using VAXes.”

Some organisations still have the machines running. “They’re part of our legacy systems,” says Henrietta Hall, IT manager at INL. “They’re still running our circulation and advertising debtors.”

Replacing them will not be a problem, as long as support continues for VMS, she says. “I’d say I’m fond of VMS – a logical and reliable operating system – more than the VAX itself. It’s good, but it’s just a computer.”

The VAX’s death was announced in a letter posted on Compaq's VAX Web site and on the site’s product information page. The letter, written by Jesse Lipcon, vice president of Compaq’s high performance server division, explained Compaq’s decision by saying that it had “extended the VAX CPU technology as far as possible”.

He also notes that many users have already replaced their VAX machines with higher-speed Alpha processor-based hardware.

Though Lipcon’s letter acknowledges that circumstances may change, it says Compaq intends to offer technical support for these computer through 2010.

VAXen, as they’re sometimes called, are servers, built originally by Digital Equipment, and now, after its purchase of DEC, by Compaq. The machines are tall - sometimes up to 1.52m high - and in their design bear a distinct genealogical line to the room-filling systems of the 1950 and 1960s.

Personal reminiscence: when this reporter came to New Zealand in late 1977, and had his first interview with the local Digital team, there was a poster on the wall saying "VAX vobiscum" - a pun on the religious salutation "pax vobiscum" (peace be with you).

"Is it with us yet?" I asked, with the superior perspective of someone who'd seen them in the UK. "The first ones will arrive soon," said the Digital man.

Reminds me how long I've been in the business ....

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