The Haus

The VAX Files: Fun with OpenVMS

August 9, 2000 -- by J.t.Qbe

Part Three: Installing OpenVMS

There's no sense in having a VAX if you don't have an operating system. The OS was my prime reason for getting the VAXstation in the first place. You can download and install the VAX port of NetBSD for free. You can even netboot the VAX from another server and install it via network. I downloaded NetBSD, but I really had my heart set on VMS. I have Unix boxes. I bought the VAX to run VMS.

After saving for a while, I finally ordered the Hobbyist OpenVMS media kit from Montagar Software for $30. I also ordered the VMS Freeware CDs for another $7, but they were out of stock. That was ok. I figured that I'd have my hands full with VMS itself for a while.


I had a problem, though. VMS would come on a CD. I didn't have a CD-ROM drive in my VAX. That was going to make installation a challenge. I had some vague notions about acquiring an external SCSI CD drive and attaching it to the SCSI port on the VAX. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it?

Well, it wasn't nearly as simple as it sounded. Since my VAX is so old (in computer terms), it needed an old CD-ROM drive to boot. Specifically, it needed a drive capable of transferring 512-byte sectors. Modern CD drives transfer 2048-byte sectors, and even older drives usually did 1024-bytes. Montagar's recommendation was to get an old DEC RRD40 CD drive, or else an old Toshiba.

Maybe a DEC would be possible for someone who works with VAX, but I don't. I work with Sun hardware. Hmmm, maybe an old Sun CD-ROM drive would work? I asked my boss, and he said that the drives we have are 1 or 2X--certainly old enough. On the shelf with all the Sun drives, I found an old Toshiba drive too. My boss told me to borrow the drives, and gave me an internal Apple CD drive to try too. With 3 drives on hand, one certainly should be able to boot the VAX.

Next: cables. No problem. I borrowed the 50-pin to 50-pin SCSI cables we used at work. On the weekend I tried to connect a CD-ROM drive to the VAX to see if it would be recognized. Problem. The SCSI cables had 50-pin male connectors at each end, and my VAX had a 68-pin male SCSI port! Obviously the cables I had wouldn't work.

Monday at work I borrowed a 50 to 68-pin SCSI cable and thought I was set. No dice--again, it had male connectors! I began searching for a cable with a 50-pin male connector at one end and a 68-pin female at the other, or at least an adapter to convert the 68-pin connector to female. I thought it would be an easy search. The first place I looked had a ton of SCSI stuff. When I told them what I needed, they looked at me like I was crazy. "What kind of computer is this?" they asked. They promised to look for a converter.

I didn't have any better luck at the second place. They had various SCSI converters and cables, but nothing with a 68-pin female connector. Finally I went to a surplus store in downtown Minneapolis. They had told me that they didn't have any SCSI cables or connectors matching my needs, but I went anyway. Sure enough, they were right. I wandered the store and admired the old hardware, but couldn't find the cable I needed.

As I was about to leave, I passed a pile of old drives in the back corner. They looked like old CD-ROM drives, so I checked them out. Sure enough, they were SCSI, both internal and external models. I turned one over and couldn't believe my eyes: it was a DEC RRD42 drive--made for the VAX! I looked at all of them, and they were all RRD42s. With an internal drive, I wouldn't have to worry about SCSI cables. I picked one up at the bargain price of $10. My day was made.

And the secret is. . .

The VAXstation 3100, I learned from another site, uses a special DEC cable for that external SCSI port. According to what I read, the port looks like an ultrawide SCSI, but isn't. For those who care, the cable part number is: DEC BC09J.

Finally installing VMS

On the day I expected/hoped my VMS CD would arrive, I installed the internal CD-ROM drive: I opened the VAXstation case, removed the tape drive and installed the CD drive in its place. I turned on the machine and at the PROM prompt typed: SHOW DEV. The VAX cheerfully reported data on my ethernet adapter and hard drive, but didn't show the CD-ROM. No problem. I noticed that the hard drive was on SCSI ID 4, which was probably the same ID I'd given the CD-ROM drive.

Open case. Look at CD drive. Guess the solitary jumper is setting ID to 4. Add jumper to far set of pins, hoping that will set ID to 5. Close case. SHOW DEV. Presto: CD-ROM drive on SCSI 5!

It was time to go check the mail. Sure enough, I'd received a package from Montagar! I eagerly ripped open the envelope and there was the CD. I put the CD in the caddy, popped it into the drive, took a glance at the booklet which came with the CD, and typed "BOOT DKA500:". I knew how to do that much. After a few seconds, the VAX was booting. I was on my way. . .

Installing OpenVMS was very easy. No GUI. All command line. The booklet from Montagar could easily be titled "Installing OpenVMS for Total Morons." It's that clear. Installing OpenVMS is as simple as typing a few commands.

At the start, anyway. First you tell the installation program the current date and time. You give it a label for the hard disk/system disk (i.e. you hit Return for the default) and give the location of the installation media (CD-ROM). The installation program then asks you whether you want to install a number of optional components. Since I have a 1GB drive, I installed most everything.

Well, almost. I actually followed the installation guide as closely as possible, which meant that I didn't install the DECnet Plus networking component but installed another instead. Since I AM a total DEC/VAX/VMS moron, I didn't (and don't) know the difference. I simply followed the lead. Things got a little hairy when it came to specifying some network information, again due to my own lack of knowledge. My main interest isn't DEC networking anyway; my priority is to get TCP/IP working.

Hmmm, I had to specify passwords for three standard accounts: SYSTEM, SYSTEST and FIELD. I'd assume one is a superuser account like root in Unix, but I have to find out what the others are.

When it came time to specify the system name, I was such a follower and so concerned about following the instructions, that I tried to type the name printed in the guide: HOBBY. Since I wasn't used to the keyboard, it came out HB00. Well, it could be worse. I'll change it if I can figure out how.

After this came my real installation problem. I had to enter my license information for the operating system. I thought I was prepared for this. I had generated my license information at the Montagar license registration page and had received the license data via email. I wrote down the information and entered it carefully at the prompts. No luck. VMS told me that my license data checksum was bad.

I'm not a quitter, so I tried again, just in case I had mistyped something. I got the same error. I tried to generate new license information, thinking that I may have entered some information incorrectly the first time. The new license data still gave me a checksum error.

That put me at a loss. I was stuck. Not knowing what else to do, I emailed Pat Jankowiak and asked him what he thought. He looked at my license data and even tried generating new data for me. We spent several hours on a Saturday night exchanging email in an attempt to get the OS properly licensed, but without results. Sometime after midnight, I gave up to try another day.

The next day I checked my email and found a suggestion by David Cathey, Montagar owner and VMS enthusiast. (Warning: technical details ahead) He told me to enter the license expiration date in the release date field, which had been left empty in the OpenVMS Guide. I'd always left it empty. When I entered the appropriate date, VMS acknowledged my license. My OS installation was finished! Thanks, Pat and David, for the help and support!

But now what?

Hmmm, good question. You've heard the saying, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." That's where I am with my VAX now. I have my own VAX/VMS system, but I'm lacking two things: installed software, and the knowledge to use it. The Hobbyist OpenVMS CD comes with some DEC software, such as DECWindows, C, Pascal and TCP/IP. However, (as I'll say many times in the future) VMS is definitely not Unix. Install Linux and you'll get piles and piles of software. Install VMS and you'll still have to install a lot of software, depending on what tasks you which to perform. Learn Linux and you can use most of the same commands on Solaris, SCO, BSD and others. None of them work on VMS. There is no ls, cat, ps or even vi. It's a whole new world.

Plans for the future

My goal (at one point) was to bring up DECWindows on my VAX, use TCP/IP to connect it to my network, and read tutorials and VMS documentation on the internet to learn this system. Then I realized that I don't even know enough VMS to bring up DECWindows, much less get TCP/IP working. Yikes! Finally I set up an old 486 running Slackware on my VAX desk and set up an OpenBSD box as a gateway/firewall for my network to give me access to internet resources. (I'd been wanting to do the OpenBSD project for a while anyway.) With that, I'll be able to start learning VMS.

Project list:

I'll keep you updated as I work my way through the list. . .


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