ABC to retire 'young' VAX systems

After nearly 20 years of mission-critical service, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation will decommission four DEC VAX systems over the next three to six months in favour of commodity Intel machines due to dwindling support and rising maintenance costs.

The ABC’s manager of corporate IT projects, Mark Barrett, said the VAXs, which run VMS, handle three key areas of the national broadcaster’s technology infrastructure.

“Our corporate e-mail is still DEC All-In-One which is primarily a messaging system but also provides small office applications,” Barrett said. “They also run a set of cataloguing databases for video and audio content, and a speciality application for rights management.”

Barrett said the VAX systems have been in place at the ABC since 1985 and replaced older DEC machines like the Systems 20.

“They ran quite smoothly for years,” he said. “The ABC had a view of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and the VAXes were reliable and stable but constrained. However, it continues to be a mission-critical system which is used every day to put programs to air.”

In the late 90s an Outlook front-end was put on the DEC e-mail system but, according to Barrett, it didn’t provide all the functionality of Exchange. “Our reasons for change include a loss or decline in support, the greater cost of support and the functionality of the system,” he said.

“Also, we want to migrate our cataloguing databases to a CMS, or digital asset management, application.”

HP supports the VAX systems, and although the ABC doesn’t have a formal supply agreement for its servers, it has tended to stick with “merged” vendors.

In the immediate term, the cataloguing application will be ported to the production AlphaServers running Unix which have been “modernized” with Web front-ends and integrated applications.

“Our Alpha systems are two to three years old but we want to do our development for HP-UX or Linux on Intel,” Barrett said. “Our aim is to become system agnostic with our CMS.”

A test system has now been set up with the cut over expected to be done sometime this year.

“In the longer term, we will be taking our applications and re-developing or purchasing them,” Barrett said. “We could port the rights management application to the Alpha but we are looking at the market.”

Although admitting both the VAX and Alpha systems are a “legacy” for the ABC's future plans for its IT, Barrett said their value and longevity should not be disregarded.

“The value of some legacy systems has been longer than expected and they have met business needs for many years. It’s not that the old system was useless,” he said. “CIOs and IT managers should be very critical and have a good look at their options before throwing the baby out with the bath water because ‘legacy’ systems could [possibly] be updated and maintained inexpensively.”

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