Of Hurricaines and Old Haunts

With one storm having hit New Orleans and another hammering South Texas, memories come back like flood waters. Thankfully, the Crescent City did not experience the trauma that we feared, a repeat of three years ago. Still, we all clung to our television and internet news feeds. To me, the names of the canals and streets and neighborhoods are all too familiar. I lived there once. It's where I met VM.

Back in the days when I was coasting through college, Mom and Dad were living in New Orleans. The Big Easy was the place where I went for the break. I needed a summertime job ... anything. Found a non-specific clerical job with a geologist at Shell Oil. Hey! That's cool! Working at One Shell Square! That geologist soon learned that I had a technical bent and set me to work on some minor programming he needed done. (This is another example of God throwing a gem in your path when you were not savvy enough to go digging for it.) The system was something called VM/SP.

This VM/SP thing was IBM all the way. Big hardware; big terminal. The terminal I used was a boat anchor of a thing, a 3270 model 5 with 27 lines and 132 columns. Strictly speaking, it was a dumb terminal but was the smartest dumb terminal I had yet encountered. There was a component of VM/SP called CMS, the Conversational Monitor System. The way you interacted with CMS was that you typed a bunch on the screen and the computer at the other end of the wire was sent all your typing at once.

At least once I snatched a glimpse of the 43xx series hardware in the machine room, There was some grand plan for these machines. (I later learned the plan was PROFS which Shell and many other large companies used for office email ... before there was an Internet.) VM really caught on at Shell and was used for years, especially thanks to PROFS, later called OfficeVision, but also because engineers could build their batch jobs for other systems using the excellent editor built into CMS and then punch those jobs to other systems for execution. VM is like "datacenter glue", nimbly connecting unlike systems.

But VM was more than just a spiffy interactive system. It presented every user with his own (virtual) System/370 computer. I asked about this for clarification: It's your own personal "machine"? Yes. Can you boot other operating systems? Yes. Sweet! I figured that Shell had paid through the nose for this fine technology. Only later did I learn that VM was one of the cheaper system products available. When I got back to school, I told friends and professors about this amazing system which allowed you to run other operating systems concurrently on one physical box. One of my professors was especially clued in and in his overview of operating systems he pronounced, "VM is the baby", the precious one.

Eventually my alma mater did get VM. And then there was BITNET and that whole story, which we should save for another time.

The baby has grown up: VM/HPO, VM/XA, VM/ESA, and now z/VM. Though PROFS and OfficeVision have fallen to stacked Dominos, VM has recently enjoyed the resurgence you all know about thanks to Linux. It's hypervisor is the finely tuned engine driving hundreds and sometimes thousands of virtual penguins. CMS hasn't changed much in appearance, so my old friends at Shell would still recognize it. While those in other shells (eg: on Linux) have no idea that they're being supported by a warm teddy bear of a host.

When Katrina hit, aside from the human tragedy, I wondered how One Shell Square faired. Funny how the mind goes to the familiar even in the most shocking circumstances. My sources tell me Shell still runs VM, but not like it once did.

-- R;