The VAX Files: Fun with OpenVMS
July 26, 2000 -- by J.t.Qbe
Part One: The Beginning
For the past several months I've been exploring the world of VAX and VMS. It's an interesting world, but one which may not be the most accessible to hobbyist newcomers. For that reason, I'm writing a series of articles and howtos describing my adventures in VMS and distilling some of my hard-earned knowledge--sort of a "VAX/VMS for Total Beginners." I'm aiming this at hobbyists who have some knowledge of Unix, though DOS/Windows fans may benefit too. If you're curious, you should find something of interest here. Don't know if you're even curious? Read on!
For most computer users nowadays, PCs and Microsoft operating systems are the entire world of computing. No architecture but Intel. No OS but Windows. Yet a growing number of users are discovering other worlds of computing, worlds where Microsoft and even Intel are not to be found. For many today, the New World is Unix, usually Linux. Linux was my own introduction to the Unix world (not counting a brief stint with Minix way back in '88): Linux ran on my PC, it was free, and it was Unixlike, all important factors to me.
Soon after that introduction, I began learning about other forms of Unix: the BSDs, Solaris, and others. When I decided to change careers, I acquired every form of Unix I could get cheaply or for free and ran them on my PCs. And I'm not the only one. I discovered that every operating system I could find had a hobbyist effort, or at least a user's group. Other people enjoy learning and hacking other operating systems too. The world kept expanding.
And as the world kept expanding, I found that hobbyist efforts don't just include operating systems, but hardware too. A growing number of Unix fans don't just enjoy running Solaris: they enjoy running Solaris on Sun hardware. Thanks to the speed of hardware development and hardware obsolescence, older Sun machines are available at reasonable prices (or even for free) if you know where to look.
In May of 1998 as I was surfing for Unix sites, I found an interesting article on OS News, titled OpenVMS and the OpenVMS Hobbyist Program. The article's authors, Pat Jankowiak and Weston Cann, describe the hobbyist effort directed toward the OpenVMS operating system and provide information on getting started using VMS as a hobbyist. As a geek aspiring to greater levels of geekhood, I was immediately interested. Not only was this a new operating system to play with, but it would require new hardware: VMS only runs on VAX or Alpha machines. So far I'd only used Intel-type hardware. This really would be a new world.
So what's VMS?
VMS (a.k.a. OpenVMS) is an operating system originally developed in 1978 by Digital Equipment Corporation for its VAX minicomputers and workstations. VMS also runs on Alpha-based machines. VMS is not DOS, Windows or Unix. It's an entirely different animal.
VMS is a proprietary operating system, which probably annoys zealots who insist on every byte of software being absolutely free and freely available. They can have their tantrums elsewhere. I don't mind a proprietary OS, as long as it's a quality act and does its job well. VMS is a class act and does its job very, very well. VMS is legendary for its stability, reliability and security.
- Stability and reliability: banking, scientific and government institutions depend on VMS for its 24x7 uptime. Many VMS installations report no downtime except for upgrades.
- Security: Most crackers don't bother. VMS demonstrates that proprietary software can be very secure. Windows 95/8 is almost impossible to secure, and NT is nearly as bad. Unix is easier to secure, but still not easy. VMS comes secure by default. It doesn't have the default security holes you'll find in other operating systems.
Ok, so why bother with OpenVMS?
I suppose I could say that this is one of those "if you have to ask, you won't understand it" kind of things. If you know that you want to run VMS, you don't need to have specific reasons why you want to run it.
That was me. But I still was fascinated to hear why I'd want to run OpenVMS, even after I knew that I wanted to run it just "because it's there." "Just because" is a perfectly valid reason for those of us who enjoy playing with operating systems just for the sake of doing so. VMS appealed to me because of its legendary status. In the late 80s I'd seen a PC VMS clone by a company called Wendin, but never got to run it. By the time I read Jankowiak and Cann's article, I'd experimented with the legendary Unix OS; now I could play with the legendary VMS too? Where could I sign up?
I suppose part of the appeal was the sense of history. I'd never taken a computer course before 1998. I'd never worked (or played) on computers bigger than a PC. I'd missed out on using the great operating systems in school or at work. In the late '80s I'd read "Hackers" by Steven Levy and longed to be a part of that culture. I finally got a chance to work with Unix in the mid-'90s. Once I found out that I could touch history again by working with VMS, there was no turning back.
That's the intangible reason. I also had a practical reason for wanting to work with VMS: I was just about to take a career leap into the computer field, and wanted to do everything possible to guarantee that I'd make it. Having VMS on your resume shows that you're serious, that you're no dummy. Even having the desire to work with VMS and knowing what VMS is can help land a job when you need every advantage you can find, like I did. Actually knowing how to navigate the OS can take you a long way.
What can I do with an OpenVMS system?
Sure, you want to know why you'd go through all the trouble of setting up and running your own VMS system--that's only natural. Why? The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
In other words, I can't give you a wide range of answers. However, here are a few possible uses for your own VMS system:
- Learn. This is my own reason for running VMS. I want to learn VMS, and what better way to learn than by running my own system? Once I get some VMS knowledge under my belt, I plan to brush up my C by doing some programming on VMS.
- Work. You could fire up DECwindows and replace your Wintel or Unix workstation with a vintage VAX/VMS system. Ok, maybe you wouldn't want to do that. The VAX/VMS system will probably be slower than your Windows or Unix box for much of what you want to do. Yet many hobbyists still use VMS workstations for productivity or for connectivity, "just because." You may find that as good a reason as any.
- Serve. A friend ran a VAXstation like mine as a 5-line dialup BBS for quite a while, serving his community. There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth when he shut it down. Running a VMS system as a BBS or web server wouldn't be out of the ordinary, however, and VMS' security would make it easier for you to sleep at night.
How do I get started?
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step." That could very well be a quote from the first page of the OpenVMS User's Manual (it isn't, though: I checked). If you don't have any VMS experience at all, the learning curve is going to seem pretty steep. VMS is different from DOS, Windows or Unix. The commands are different. The architecture is different. The mindset is different.
Like it or not, you'll probably have to spend a fair amount of time with your nose in the docs just to figure out how to navigate the directory structure or compile a C program. Stay with it, grasshopper. The rewards are many.
Get your first bearings by reading Jankowiak and Cann's article, OpenVMS and the OpenVMS Hobbyist Program. Learn what the VMS hobbyist program is all about.
Naturally, there's no substutite for experience and practice in learning a new operating system, and VMS is no different. Fortunately, you don't have to invest time and money in a VAX of your own in order to get your feet wet in VMS. If you're a student, your school may have a VMS system running, and you may be able to get an account. Some DECUS chapters run BBS systems, and you may be able to get an account on one of them.
Personally, I recommend Hobbes the VAX, a freely available VMS system run by three students. You can get an account on Hobbes by asking nicely, and then get a little practice and see if you like VMS enough to run it on a machine of your own.
You'll need to know what to do, though! Several online tutorials are available on the internet (see the links at the end of this article), though one of the best ways to learn some VMS is simply by typing 'help' at the VMS prompt. VMS has an extensive and widely renowned online help system which offers a wealth of information to those willing to learn.
You can also read the official VMS documentation, all of it, online at http://www.openvms.digital.com:8000. I'm currently wading through several of the manuals just trying to get my feet on the ground. A good technique is to keep a browser open to the documentation while experimenting via a telnet session to Hobbes.
And of course, stay tuned to The Haus! I've just finished two more articles, one on acquiring VAX hardware and the other on installing VMS, and I'll continue writing howtos on various aspects of getting VMS up and running on my own system. Quite frankly, I can't find the type of beginner information I need, so I'm going to write it myself! So far, running VMS on my own VAX has been an adventure, and I expect it to stay that way. Come along for the ride!
Where do I learn more?
OpenVMS documentation website: http://www.openvms.digital.com:8000/
OpenVMS Beginner's FAQ: http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Lakes/9999/vms_beginners_faq.html
Online tutorials (in order of usefulness):
General OpenVMS resources:
Next week: Getting the hardware and software.
Thanks to those who proofread this series: A.T. Hun, Steve from Hobbes the VAX, and DFWCUG (Dallas Ft Worth Compaq Users Group) members David Cathey, Pat Jankowiak and John Wisniewski. DFWCUG has mentioned that it would like to publish this series in its newsletter. You can subscribe for free at http://www.montagar.com/dfwcug.