April 1, 2006

My Desktop OS: OpenVMS with CDE

Author: Ben Hertz

Call me a dodo bird, but my desktop OS is OpenVMS, an operating system that's secure, reliable, and low-cost, with consistent performance and desirable functionality.

Let's start with security. When was the last time OpenVMS was shut down by a virus? Have there been any Trojans or worms that attacked the DKA0:[000000] or hijacked the boot block of a TK-50? Does your OS have an Operator that incessantly rings audible alarms? It's this kind of security that makes OpenVMS famous.

You can count on OpenVMS for reliability. Very seldom does a runaway process lock up to a point of unresponsiveness. There are no Blue Screens of Death, and the OS doesn't panic when the going gets tough. I've never rebooted "just because."

Low cost: My desktop runs on the world's fastestworkstation (as of 11 years ago). This investment, injected with a few expense dollars, has paid dividends 24x7 for years. Countless x86s and MIPSes have been come and gone, and the killer OS of the time was entombed long ago, yet critical software continues to run even on new hardware. Other OSes are camouflaged as backward-compatible, and
porting existing software to these new versions is commonplace. OpenVMS's middle name is "backward compatible"; it continues to run the same 64-bit images that I compiled years ago.

As for performance, my OpenVMS machines boots in the same amount of time today as it did when it was new, just as Windows workstations do, even though the hardware Windows runs on is 100 times faster than machines of that era. The interval from power-on to the time when all the necessary virus, spyware, and malware scanners are up and running has been a constant since the Big Bang.

Nor does my desktop OS lack for functionality. Today, a Web browser, email client, and editor are all that people need for 60% of their work. For me, Mozilla for OpenVMS is the right choice. The remaining 40% can be done by a good DCL command procedure or program compiled with C, FORTRAN, BASIC, ADA, COBOL, or whatever. For folks who need more
cuddling, there are office automation tools even for OpenVMS.

For instance, I've used XESS from time to time, but I've never really understood this spreadsheet enigma. In my world, FORTRAN adds and subtracts, so why do I need something that hides the formulas and shows only the results? Source code is self documenting and eliminates the need for lengthy explanations of convoluted logic.

My management is speechless with delight at the sight of stapleless budget reports printed by a DECWriter on 132-column continuous paper. In contrast, the Windows team orchestrates parades with high-cost projectors showing fancy animations as they dance for upgrade budgets year after year. Every budget request includes a laundry list of sacrifices which, in fact, were the previous year's must-haves. This bait-and-switch act is so easy to catch on to that it is a good thing the projector's bulb burns out from time to time so that nobody remembers what was actually promised. I
suppose that the lack of hard copies is the icing on the cake.

When DEC launched
DECWrite
for word processing, my reaction was, "Who needs this?" Spell check had some value, though not as much as you might think, since acronyms, abbreviations, and jargon are not found in the dictionary. Many people use word processing software only to generate clever word juxtapositions
that violate the laws of grammar, and misspell proper words by prefixing an "e" or "i" in the hope that it will make them technological visionaries. Instant messaging's purpose is to downsize while there are more emoticons than characters in many alphabets.

It's true that my OpenVMS workstation lacks portability, but as one prophet once said, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." I agree 100%; because I'm subjected to this torture at work, why would I want to take it home?

As an open source proponent, I'm happy to use the GNV (GNU's Not VMS) to provide a Unix-like shell environment on my workstation. On the rare occasions when I'm not working at the command line, I could use MP3 and MPEG players for OpenVMS, but would someone explain why I would want to sit in a noisy data center to watch a movie when I have a comfy couch with
a big screen TV at home? Why would I want to listen to the same songs over and over?

OpenVMS mastered remote access, remote administration, clustering, and load balancing decades ago, while today the Windows crowd is forcing square pegs into round holes. New pegs are spawned each year
while the OpenVMS sharks relentlessly run the back office. Masterpieces like the Common Desktop Environment (CDE) are monuments to the programmers who got it right the first time.

Some readers may question OpenVMS's desktop viability. While they may criticize OpenVMS as a glass half empty, others look at it with optimism and say it is half full. My view is that there is twice as much glass as you need.

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