OS News

20 April 1998

OpenVMS and the OpenVMS Hobbyist Licensing Program

By Pat Jankowiak and Weston Cann

In 1996, Digital
granted permission
for DECUS to issue
licenses for noncommercial
users of OpenVMS
on the VAX
Even though the
machine is over
10 years old, it
still runs 24/365,
and is shutdown
only for system
upgrades or
OpenVMS is
really easy to
use and set up
VMS is extremely
resistant to
intruders, including
even ubercrackers
like Kevin Mitnick
It is true that
VMS will run on
the Multia, a
150MHZ Alpha
originally designed
for NT and LINUX,
but it's a dark

OpenVMS (or just "VMS" for non-marketroids), celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is one of the most secure, robust, and highly stable OSes available for free or at any price. VMS stands for "Virtual Memory System", and as for the "Open" part, it is certified by the X/Open Corporation (as is Digital UNIX).

Formerly, the monetary cost of licensing a VMS system was prohibitive for the hobbyist, often exceeding the price paid for the used hardware. In 1995, Pat Jankowiak, a hardware hacker from Dallas Texas, appeared before a panel of Digital's Vice Presidents at the DECUS national event in Anaheim California, and asked for a hobbyist license for VMS, citing the tremendous opportunity missed on the pdp-11. The request was driven by the need for a superior computing system capable of handling large numerical values, and the desire to build a free public access VMS-based BBS system. In 1996, Digital granted permission for DECUS to issue licenses for noncommercial users of OpenVMS on the VAX, and the program is known as the "OpenVMS Hobbyist Licensing Program".


OpenVMS systems are being used for many purposes. A DECUS Local user group in Dallas uses one as a bbs, serving mail and news to nearly 400 members (telnet dfwlug.decus.org). The system is always up. The datacenter at Montagar Software Concepts has several machines running OpenVMS on which the enterprise is based, as does the Baylor Hospital, the Veterans Administration, and various entities requiring security and/or system availability where lives may depend upon the system. In the not too distant past, Credit Lyonnaise, a French bank, burned to the ground. They were open the next day in a temporary location, every piece of data intact, no transactions lost, because they were running OpenVMS and had a mirror site 40 Km away. The University of Texas at Dallas uses OpenVMS version 5.5 on an 11/750 which controls an electron beam lithography machine, the mission-critical cornerstone of the nanotechnology fabrication clean room. Even though the machine is over 10 years old, it still runs 24/365, and is shutdown only for system upgrades or modifications.

What's so great about VMS?

Virtual Memory

In the 32-bit VAX running VMS, the virtual memory is mapped to a 4 gigabyte address range. What this gets the programmer is the ability to run very large programs on a machine with modest physical memory. Disk space is used for a dynamic swapfile, and therefore as far as programs or users are concerned, the machine looks much bigger than it is. VAX VMS does 128-bit floating point math too.

Shells and Windows

OpenVMS is really easy to use and set up, and its many DOS-like commands are familiar yet optionally more verbose and very powerful. VMS uses a command line interpreter known as Digital Command Language, or DCL, and for those who prefer Unix commands, a POSIX shell is available. DCL is the means by which users communicate with the OS. Simple or very complex programs can be written in DCL. Symbols, logical names, and extremely powerful lexical functions are available at the DCL prompt.

You can run programs and perform all system functions from a character-cell based terminal, or through a configurable GUI encompassing as many virtual terminals and other applications as you need.

If VMS is run on a workstation such as a VAXStation 3100, the user can run DECWindows, an X-windowing system which provides an extremely useful GUI to point and click at. A user can do anything within such a context that may be done in any common UNIX environment, and more.

Rock Solid Security

VMS is extremely resistant to intruders, including even ubercrackers like Mr. Kevin Mitnick, as he himself has publicly stated. VMS laughs at the SATAN program. The password file and other sensitive files, unlike those in various flavors of "X" and Microsoft operating systems, is inaccessible to common users by default. Direct access to physical memory or I/O requires special privileges not normally given to users. While it's true that one can make a UNIX or NT box fairly secure by careful and proper setup, VMS comes that way right out of the box.


Absolute reliability is another VMS strength. If a program fails, the worst thing that usually will happen is that the user's login session may hang or terminate. The system keeps right on going. This is the beauty of the virtuality of VMS. You don't crash the real box, just your own login. On the other hand, a careless system manager could give various "dangerous" privileges to those who are irresponsible, and a poorly written program can be a weak link, but those are problems outside the scope of an operating system, and no amount of OS toughness can compensate for poor management.

Applications Base

There are literally thousands of commercial applications available for VMS, from system tools, programming tools, CAD/CAM packages, mail, news, cluster software allowing several machines to share resources, networking, Oracle and several other databases, editors, word processors, bbs's, scientific applications for simulation, the list goes on.. And for every commercial application, there is often at least one if not several freeware apps available through DECUS and in various places on the web, not to mention the games.

Windows NT

A testimony to the righteousness of OpenVMS is that many of the multitasking and security features inside the highly touted Windows NT are based on VMS internals concepts. Of course, security and robustness also has to do with the architecture of the computer as well, so therein lie some of the various troubles with NT-Intel, and reasons why it will likely never be as good as VMS for really available and secure computing.

VMS Not Meant for PCs

If you're wondering if you can run VMS on an Alpha-based NT workstation produced by Digital, you can't. There seems to be a small but notable growth in the manufacturing of Alpha-based PCs -- many specifically created to run Linux or NT, but they do not run VMS. At this time, it seems to be a firmware "BIOS" issue, and unless someone is willing to write drivers to allow VMS to recognize the PCI/EISA bus paradigm and common "PC" type peripherals, etc.. I would venture that VMS on an Alpha intended for NT would generally not be implementable by the hobbyist, but we may hope.

To my knowledge, from recent discussions in comp.sys.dec and others, DEC is not going to write such drivers, leaving it to the hackers to do so. The reason for this is that VMS is designed to be the ultimate high end, and to force it to run on Personal Alphas and clones, with the associated various peripherals common to Alpha NT and PCs would not only encumber it, but also possibly provide a plethora of security opportunities. It is true that VMS will run on the Multia, a 150MHZ Alpha terminal-cum-workstation originally designed for NT and LINUX, but it's a dark secret as to just where to wave the dead chicken to get it to work, and nobody's telling. I know guys that know how to do this AND overclock it to 300 MHZ, but that's all I can say on the topic because they will have me killed.

How to Get Started.

So now you've heard about the wonders of VMS, and you're impressed. How can you play with VMS on your own? The easiest way is to see if there's a DECUS local user group in your area, and if they have a VMS based bbs. If so, you may be able to join and get an account on the machine. This is a great way to get a taste of VMS as a user, but does not compare with the pleasure of being the system manager of your own VAX. The least expensive route, as mentioned previously, is to get ahold of a surplus VAX for a few bucks, load up the OS, and start playing. Install CMUIP and ethernet the VAX to your NT or W95 box. You can run DECwindows on a Vaxstation, and use the PC to serve the modem, printer, and data disks. The base install of VMS 5.5 will fit on a 150 meg drive, so you can make use of inexpensive SCSI drives.

Catalog O' Vaxen -- Machines That Will Run VMS

Used VAXen are inexpensive and plentiful right now, especially with the popularity of the 64-bit DEC Alpha among VMS and UNIX customers. A VMS Hobbyist distribution and install kit is available on CD-ROM from the DECUS DFWLUG. In addition to versions 5.5 and 6.1 of VMS, there is a lot of freeware on the CD which will be useful, such as CMUIP, the free IP stack from Carnegie Mellon University.

In the case that your VAX does not come with a CD-ROM drive, you can obtain either the SCSI RRD40 DEC CD-ROM drive or a Toshiba SCSI CD-ROM drive. The Webmaster may be able to provide an install kit on a tape, but it's much easier and faster from a CD, and someone in your local DECUS LUG may be able to loan you one, or install VMS for you. In any case, it is highly recommended to obtain a CD drive for your VAX.

As to support, well, DEC won't support you for free, although they have been really helpful with direct hardware configuration questions at 1-800-digital. Your local DECUS LUG should be your first line of help. You can check out http://www.decus.org for a list of Local User Groups around the world. Most DECUS members are really willing to help, and a great source of information and leads on used gear. There's even an online VAX setup "cheat sheet." If you have further problems, e-mail jankowiak@dfwlug.decus.org and we'll try to help.

A workstation such as a VAXstation 3100 has SCSI, ethernet, and a serial port, and can be used with a terminal or a graphics head, depending on the video card option installed, and 16 or 32 megs memory. Such a unit is preferred among hobbyists, and goes for about $150-300, depending on configuration, and uses about 100 watts, like a PC (PC and other power supplies are often rated higher than the actual power used).

Slightly larger Q-bus VAXen, such as the MicroVAX 3300 are worth somewhat more because of the expanded configurability of the Q-bus and their convenient intermediate size (1'x1'x2' pedestal). These models may have more or less of the workstation's features, depending on what plug-in cards are installed. An MV3300 has 6 free slots in the minimum configuration, and ethernet is built in. These guys use about 200-250 watts when full of cards and drives.

"Big Iron" models, starting with the 4' high rack, such as the MicroVAX 3900, are often free for the taking, and although they may weigh 500 LBS, they are the most powerful for the money, and don't really use THAT much electricity (about 500 watts). A typical MV3900, with 16 Q-bus slots, will have 8 RS232 ports with modem control, SCSI, DSSI, or other disk interface, ethernet, a tape drive, depending on what the previous owner left installed. Peripherals by third parties are numerous, and even genuine DEC cards and peripherals such as disks are inexpensive. A Q-bus VAX often is capable of using more memory, again, depending on what's in the box when you get it. A machine like this can simultaneously use several kinds of disk and tape devices, terminals, etc.

As an example, my MV3900 has a 8 RS232 ports, ethernet, built-in 150MB disk, a dual RX50 floppy, SCSI, DSSI (a SCSI-like DEC hard disk interface), SDDI (a DEC interface for 4pcs. of RA90 series 1-gig disks), a 9-track, and a 290MB cartridge tape drive, so it's pretty loaded, and yet still has 5 slots empty.

The really big stuff like the 6000, 7000, 8000, and 9000 series will need 3-phase 208V, and although the hobbyist license can be used on any model, these big units are for the truly devout elite.. These usually have everything, and plenty of it, but operating one can be very expensive in terms of special busses, very expensive cards, and a huge thirst for power and air conditioning.

There is also an older class of VAX with a bus called a UNIBUS. You can tell these because the model numbers start with "11", such as 11/750, 11/730, etc.. Again, these are not for the casual user, but more for the fanatic DEChead. They are perfectly usable, but very slow, power-hungry, and the cards are hard to find. Best leave those to the devout as well.

When shopping for a VAX Workstation, be sure to look closely at the front panel.. Digital also made a look-alike DECstation, which is a UNIX workstation based on the MIPS chip. It runs ULTRIX perfectly well, but NOT VMS.. Most peripherals will interchange, though.


As to the future of VMS, Compaq is very interested in OpenVMS, and, off the record, Compaq's officials were filled with glee, dollar signs shining brightly in their eyes, when they found out how much money VMS makes every year for DEC. Compaq, certainly a leader in the Wintel desktop domain, has just purchased a high-end for themselves. Previously they had made an offer to buy DEC, but were unsuccessful, and bought Tandem instead. This time they were successful, and this is going to be good for everyone, especially the hobbyist. I believe that VMS will be around for the far future. Compaq also is very interested in Digital UNIX. Compaq knows how to aggressively market a product. Expect to see more DEC advertisements and commercials. I predict a DEC commercial in next year's super bowl.

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