Programmer fights for a system's life

August 07, 2005|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

Jonathan Backus may not be a household name, but the Hagerstown man helped to spark a movement that advocates for the rights of thousands of businesses and government agencies across the country.

"The organization is still going on, it's still incorporated in the state of Maryland ... and it's genesis and start and everything came out of Hagerstown," said Backus, 44, a computer programmer who now works at the AB Volvo Powertrain plant near Hagerstown. "I never really wanted this to be about me. I wanted this to be about the operating system."

The cause he fought for is the continued survival of Hewlett Packard Co.'s e3000 computers and its MPE/iX multiuser processing system, which HP has stopped selling and has said it will not support beyond 2006.


The computers, and their operating systems, are considered virtually indestructible. The company's decision has left many information technology workers in a bind and prompted many others to reluctantly switch to different computer systems.

"It is a quandary. I think we are representative of a lot of the HP community that wasn't very happy with HP's decision, but you've got to keep going," said Charles Benil, director of information systems for the Maryland Higher Education Commission. "I'm not excited about moving some of our applications that just don't go down onto Windows systems that I know we're going to have problems with."

In this age of constantly evolving computer technology, when software and hardware become antiquated seemingly in the blink of an eye, brand loyalty might seem a quaint, but unrealistic notion. Bucking the trend is a community numbering in the thousands that has rallied behind HP's e3000 and accompanying MPE/iX operating system, introduced for the business community in 1972.

The machines can be found in private businesses and government offices across Maryland and the country, including the City of Hagerstown, Frederick County, Washington County ARC, Maryland Department of Education and Fort Detrick.

Many users

Scott Nicewarner, director of information technologies for the City of Hagerstown, said the city has been using its e3000s for about two decades, predominately to store the city's financial records. While the city has embraced other technology as well, he said he understands why so many computer users have clung to the system over the years.

"It's a rock-solid piece of equipment. It's certainly old, it's well over 15, 20 years," Nicewarner said. "They certainly do have their loyal customers, I'll tell you that. Even HP file servers, I think, are rock solid."

On Nov. 14, 2001, HP announced it would stop selling the machines on Nov. 1, 2003, and no longer would provide technical support for the system after Dec. 31, 2006.

Backus, who said he has written computer programs for such e3000 users as the Italian Post Office, City of Hagerstown and Brethren Mutual Insurance Co., leaped into action following the announcement.

"My consulting company was doing pretty well, growing every year," Backus said. "Things were going well, and HP made this announcement that they were going to discontinue the 3000s. I had a problem with it. I knew there were thousands of companies that used this product."

Soon after the announcement, Backus approached HP and asked if he could take over the source codes the company has used over the years and use them to make upgrades to the system in order to provide continued support to its users.

A source code is the basic blueprint of a computer program. Access to a source code makes it possible to understand how a program works internally.

With the source codes, Backus said he would be able to continue to support the systems and make patches and upgrades for new technologies long after HP removed itself from the equation.

"As technology moves forward, the operating system needs to be tweaked, improved, moved forward," he said. "We didn't necessarily need to own (the source codes) as long as we had the ability to maintain the operating system."

HP's position

HP officials said they would consider handing over the codes, not to an individual, but rather to a group capable of sustaining itself. So in December 2001, Backus incorporated in Maryland OpenMPE, which he said was supported by a membership base in the hundreds and a board of directors spread across the continent.

After selling his own e3000 and going to work for Volvo, Backus resigned as chairman of OpenMPE two years ago, turning over the reins of his organization to Canadian computer consultant Birket Foster.

Foster, who said a majority of his clients are in the U.S. and many of them swear by the e3000, said Backus was instrumental in earning OpenMPE a seat at the table with HP in advance of the 2006 deadline.

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