The VAX Files: Fun with OpenVMS
August 2, 2000 -- by J.t.Qbe
Part Two: Getting the Hardware and Software
If you're going to run OpenVMS, you're going to leave the world of Intel-based architecture. VMS doesn't run on the x86 (though the FreeVMS Project aims to correct that). You can only run VMS on a VAX or Alpha-based machine. That may either turn you off or encourage you, depending on your attitude and adventurousness.
For me, running OpenVMS meant getting a VAX. There was no question about it. To me, VAX represented industrial-strength non-mainframe computing of the 80s. I was surprised to learn that VAX machines are readily and cheaply available to the hobbyist. You may not even need to rewire your house, depending on the VAX you get. For a reasonable price you can pick up a VAXstation, a workstation type and size VAX. You may be able to get a MicroVAX cheap or for free, and MicroVAXen appear to be little bigger than a full tower. Of course, you can get bigger (physically) machines too, but that probably won't benefit the beginning hobbyist.
Let me also note that VMS will run on Alpha machines. Since that isn't my interest, I haven't done much research. Here's my total knowledge about Alphas: I've heard that the latest Alphas are faster than Intel machines; typically available Alphas seem to be faster than typically available VAXen; Alphas tend to cost more. If you want to know more, you'll figure out where to find the information.
Where do I get a VAX?
Jankowiak in his article suggests starting with your local VAX contacts and DECUS group. Since I didn't have any contacts in the computer industry when I began my search, that was out. If you have contacts, though, check them out. All over the country, probably all over the world, VAXen are being "retired," and often that means "scrapped." It's a shame to let these machines be discarded. You might find leads on VAX machines which you can get for free. The future may bring a mailing list dedicated to rescuing unwanted DEC equipment. In the meantime, if anyone knows of any VAXen in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota area which are going to be scrapped, let me know. I wouldn't mind expanding my collection. . .
A second option for obtaining a VAX may be to check out the thriving newsgroups dedicated to DEC and VMS: comp.os.vms and comp.sys.dec. You may see notices for equipment which is up for grabs or for sale. Once in a while hardware shows up on the DECrescue mailing list hosted at decvax.org.
"For sale" may end up being your option, though. It was for me. You might try contacting Montagar Software Concepts. Montagar deals in some old DEC stuff; if you can't find what you need, send them an email and they may be able to give you some leads.
Personally, I went the tried-and-true method of checking eBay. There isn't a huge market for VAX-related items there, but there's often something. You can also try auctions.workstations.org.
What should I look for?
In his article, Jankowiak presents a "Catalog O' Vaxen." Read and learn. If you're a rank beginner like I was (and still am), you don't want to invest a huge pile of money or real estate. Some VAX minicomputers are reasonably sized, but you want to find out before you commit. I think that the best option for the beginner is to get a VAXstation: a workstation size and style VAX. VAXstations were produced during the late '80s and early '90s and can be surprisingly capable. They can also be surprisingly reasonable in price.
I started searching for VAXstations on eBay and found a pretty good system: a VAXstation 3100 m38 with 24 MB RAM, 1 GB hard drive, TK50 tape drive, graphics adapter and (16? 19?) inch monitor. Best of all, it was local. I could stop by, see the machine and inspect it before I paid, and avoid shipping charges. The machine was worth my while, and it ended up costing me $200. It was a little more than I wanted to spend, but worth the money. My wife affectionately calls it "The Widowmaker", possibly because the monitor seems to weigh more than she does, possibly because of the loud hum when I first power it up. Either way, I do enjoy the constant tan I seem to have lately.
When you begin your search for a VAX, take a few minutes to go to DECUS and sign up. You can sign up for basic membership for free, and you must be a DECUS member with a valid membership ID number to be able to order OpenVMS as a hobbyist. Turnaround time can be up to a month, so you'll want to give it plenty of time.
Once you have your membership ID, head over to Montagar Software to order your OpenVMS kit. The kit currently runs $30 for either the VAX or Alpha version. You can also order a VMS freeware CD for another $7, if they're in stock.
Next week: Installing OpenVMS
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.