In a turnabout forced by pressure from HP e3000 users, HP is considering letting users migrate from the proprietary MPE operating system and applications to a newer hardware platform - its mid-range Unix server line, the HP 9000.

HP stopped selling new e3000s last autumn, and rejected the option of offering users the means to run MPE on the HP 9000. Last month, there were calls for HP to turn it open-source rather than simply let it die.

Making its proprietary code publicly available was clearly not what the company wanted and in a recent letter to the OpenMPE user advocacy group, the company said "after listening to the input provided by the OpenMPE Board, we have reopened the subject" of migration to HP 9000. It promised an update in June, but not necessarily a final decision.

HP admitted there are few technical obstacles to the move. Running e3000-based software on the HP 9000 is possible because the two systems share a similar architecture and use PA-RISC processors, said David Wilde, HP's e3000 business manager. But that conversion ability doesn't necessarily apply to every generation of the HP 9000 system. Differences in firmware and various components may make it impossible in some cases. "It is something we are investigating," he said.

The ability to move the MPE operating system to the HP 9000 would give e3000 users "a surplus of hardware" for keeping the e3000 alive after HP ends its support in 2006, said Ron Honer, a legacy systems supervisor and OpenMPE board member, adding that, “it's a good sign that HP is continuing to discuss these issues. It's better than silence. I don't think they really understood the backlash they were going to get by announcing the end of MPE. I don't think HP really understood what they were going up against."

Users, who are feeling increasing pressure to make migration decisions as the deadline draws closer, have been pushing HP to decide this year whether it will release the source code. The e3000 user community is very active, and mailing lists receive a lot of traffic. Members are pushing for ways to extend the usefulness of the e3000, as well as minimise the risk involved with "homesteading" - running the system beyond 2006 - are pushing HP to provide definitive answers. And, in a recent survey by HP user group Interex, respondents said a decision on third-party source-code custody is their top priority this year.

However, HP in its letter said no decision on the source-code issue will be made until the second half of 2005. The company cited a list of reasons, including "significant planning and investigation" involving a range of technical, legal and business factors.

That's an unpopular position and one that "plants the seed in people's minds that they are just stringing us along," said e3000 consultant John Burke, also a board member of OpenMPE.