Interview with Christophe de Dinechin, HP-UX Engineer

Today we host an interview with Christophe de Dinechin, Software Architect in HP-UX (Software business unit, Infrastructure Solutions). Most of you already know HP-UX, the leading “traditional” UNIX today feature-wise (second only to Solaris in Unix market-share, mostly competing with AIX). With Christophe we discuss HP-UX’s competition, the other… 5 OSes HP supports with its various products, the Itanium platform and more.

1. What is HP-UX’s main market? Where does the OS is mostly used?

HP-UX logo Christophe de Dinechin: The short answer is: “enterprise computing”. The long answer can be found on HP’s web site.

2. What are HP-UX’s advantages and disantvantages over AIX and Solaris, purely technically-speaking?

Christophe de Dinechin: HP-UX has been ranked #1 overall by the DH Brown 2002 Unix review. So it’s a well-balanced Unix.

But in my opinion, the major differentiator is Itanium. An OS like HP-UX, AIX or Solaris cannot be considered in isolation of the platform it runs on. And Itanium is taking the top spot in performance regularly, from SPEC to TPC, yet you can buy Itanium workstations for less than $3500. So customers are starting to believe HP’s “high performance at low cost” statements.

3. What do you see as the biggest competitor today on HP-UX’s business? Windows or Linux and why?

Christophe de Dinechin: Both are very serious competitors. If you are caught between a lion and a leopard, you don’t start asking “Who’s the most dangerous”, you think about ways to fight both or have them fight each other.

Linux competes more in the technical computing area. Itanium supercomputers run Linux. The development environment and ecosystem of technical solutions makes the difference.

Windows competes in the traditional “enterprise” markets. They got very good TPC benchmarks lately.

4. What features from Tru64-UNIX have been or will be incorporated to HP-UX? What is to happen to Tru64, will they be new big releases or just patches from now on?

Christophe de Dinechin: HP released a roadmap for a transition from Tru64 to HP-UX, and also published a FAQ which answers these questions. According to this FAQ, HP is committed to develop new versions until at least 2004, including support for up to 64 processors, and transition tools to HP-UX. There will be at least a couple of point releases, not just patches. Naturally, during that time, HP-UX will start integrating some of the strengths of Compaq’s offering.

5. HP supports a whole range of OSes, from VMS to Tru64 and Linux, Windows etc. Do you believe that each OS is built and is scalable to a specific market, or do you think that all OSes can be engineered to do (and do well) just about anything?

Christophe de Dinechin: Linux and other GNU operating systems (BSD, Hurd-based, etc) share a remarkable flexibility due to their open-source nature. They can run on anything from watches or toasters to supercomputers. So an OS can be engineered to do just about anything.

The downside is that the GNUs tend to not do anything particularly well, with a few exceptions (BSD’s security is an example). Linux doesn’t scale exactly as well as HP-UX, and it’s user interface is not yet as consistent and newbie-friendly as MacOS X.

Commercial offerings on the other hand have a “sense of purpose”, a strategic direction. They are built for a specific market because they need a market, they need to make money. Linux doesn’t need to make money.

The boundary is quite fuzzy, however. Microsoft is ready to lose a lot of money to conquer a new strategic position, see their current work on embedded systems, PDAs and cell phones. Similarly, HP and Intel invested massively in Itanium. In the brave GNU world, Linux is getting strategic directions from the people who want to make money with it, like HP, RedHat, IBM.

6. Recently HP canned the Gnome 2 porting project to HP-UX. Why was that? Do you feel that CDE fits the bill as a modern desktop environment today? Are there plans to replace CDE with something else?

Christophe de Dinechin: I have no idea why this decision was taken, but I guess it has something to do with the fact that the workstation market isn’t that hot right now. I personally don’t like CDE much. The Unix Hater’s handbook rightfully calls this kind of software: “complex non-solutions to simple non-problems”. But then, I’ve not been thrilled by Gnome or KDE either. When I run a GNU, I tend to stick to good ol’ WindowMaker, just because I don’t feel it’s worth changing all my configuration files.

But using Linux as a desktop happens less and less for me, since all my home machines run MacOS X these days. Now, _that_ is a GUI I’d like to see on HP-UX. Steve, Avie, Bertrand, don’t you want to port to HP-UX once more? Pleaaaase?

Ah, wait, I take that back. I still have a Linux machine at home. My CD player runs Linux. It’s an HP DE200C. It would have been a darn cool machine if it weren’t for the price (close to $1000 for a CD player? No thanks!)

7. Today HP is pushing HP-UX mostly on Itanium processors and not on HP PA-RISCs. Do you feel that “sharing” the platform with Windows and Linux can be as successful as running on your own platform? Also, are all OS features available in the Itanium architecture as they are for the PA-RISC one?

Christophe de Dinechin: Competition is good. And HP has placed bets on all three runners anyways. HP is always very pragmatic So, as long as we can maintain a strong value proposition with HP-UX, customers will keep buying it. On the other hand, there is no law of thermodynamics stating that HP-UX business must always increase. Hmmm, I guess I just made a comparison between HP-UX business and entropy there :-/

In terms of features, the gap is closing rapidly. There are still a few missing features, like virtual partitioning (vPars). But we are supposed to reach at least parity soon, and we are working on it.

8. How do you feel of the open source movement? Do you think that releasing the source of HP-UX or any other of the HP-developed OSes is compatible with your strategy or not?

Christophe de Dinechin: I have a significant investment in open source myself. But free software or open-source software doesn’t always make sense. Again, HP tends to be very practical.

To take your example, I’m not sure what open-sourcing HP-UX would bring to customers. One of the key values of HP-UX is reliability, as in “if it crashes, if it doesn’t run well, if there is a missing feature, we take the blame and we help you”. It’s more difficult with the GNUs. Also, HP-UX contains a lot of proprietary code, so I’m pretty sure we couldn’t open-source it if we wanted to.

On the other hand, if you want to know the details of the hardware, you can look at HP’s contributions to the Linux kernel. David Mosberger and Stephane Eranian ported Linux to Itanium. In that sense, Linux on Itanium is an “HP-developed OS”. And then, David and Stephane wrote a book to explain how they did it, and HP published it. If you don’t have this book, go buy it. Now! It’s really good for anybody interested in OS design. And I’m not just saying that to help my friends

9. How’s the port of VMS to Itanium is progressing? When will it be ready for general consumption? Will you continue offering the OS under the “hobbyists” license?

Christophe de Dinechin: Frankly, I can’t tell you. Both because I don’t know much and because I would have to kill you if I told you.

10. How do you see OSes getting evolved with time? What in your opinion, OSes will be able to do in 10-20 years from now that today can’t, technically-speaking?

Christophe de Dinechin: Three things:

– The OS itself will probably fade into the background where it belongs. You don’t care much about the OS of a Palm Pilot or a network appliance or an ATM, and you shouldn’t. The OS would probably have disappeared from the public consciousness five years ago, weren’t it for Microsoft’s insistence on making it its main source of profit (so people have to _know_ what an OS is, otherwise they wouldn’t want to pay for one). Illustrating this trend: Java, OpenDoc (no OS, no applications, only documents), the Taos operating system (I hope that still explains somewhere what this architecture-independent OS was), the Linux compatibility layer in most Unix variants including HP-UX, Virtual PC for the Mac, etc. In twenty years, I hope you will be able to run applications without having to think about the OS.

– In terms of user interfaces, I believe that vocabulary-based user interfaces will emerge. With a mouse or a pen, you can only select about 10 commands at a time, and this gets more constraining as devices get smaller. With words, you can select about 10,000. It doesn’t have to be words, however. A voice-mail system where you tap “1221” to get your last voice mails without even thinking about it is a simplistic form of what I call a vocabulary-based user interface. At the other hand of the spectrum, what about thought-driven user interfaces? It might come sooner than you think to a PDA near you. By the way, thinking about how to program these things ultimately is one of the things that drove me to develop Mozart.

– One trend has almost never been broken: computers take more and more time to boot. In 20 years, expect that the average PC will take anywhere between 2 hours and 10 days to boot. Don’t laugh, we would not have believed in 2 minutes boot times back when we had instant-on Apple IIs. But then, humans take a few years to boot themselves, there’s a lot of hardware diagnostic tests to run (Test emergency alarm system; Test input processor; Test output ejector; Test low-power mode; Repeat).


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