Forty years should be old age for an operating system, but the Virtual Machine Environment (VME) is far from being pensioned off, and Fujitsu is investing to develop it further.
VME, which became ICL's flagship mainframe system, was developed in the 1960s and released commercially in the 1970s. It proved remarkably popular, especially in the British public sector and the former colonies. Even today there are applications in UK central and local government, as well as Australia, South Africa and Singapore that depend on it.
George Allt, who joined ICL in 1968 and has spent a lifetime in mainframe computing, is in charge of the VME legacy. Fujitsu is no longer seeking new greenfield customers for VME, but it is growing its "mips base", Allt says. This is due mainly to cover business continuity and disaster recovery contingencies.
That there is such a need is because Allt and his team have adapted VME and its applications to run on modern server platforms such as Windows/Intel and Linux/Intel, providing links into enterprise systems such as Oracle and SAP. They are now adapting them for cloud deployments.
"We are already providing remote access to VME apps through our own datacentres," Allt says. "So you could say we have VME running in the cloud already."
It would be no idle boast to say that VME was the original cloud computing platform because of the way it handles memory and systems communications. "We did some pretty revolutionary things there," says Allt.
In fact, with the operating system already virtualised, the development of ICL's mainframe hardware was moving towards the cloud paradigm when Fujitsu took over the company in 1998.
It is probably fair to say that Fujitsu was pleasantly surprised to find a technological jewel in VME. According to Allt, Fujitsu's main board has taken a deep interest in the operating system for the past 10 years. Even today, it gives Allt a budget to develop the platform.
Outside of mobile operating systems, VME remains one of the world's most modern operating systems. Unix/Linux was designed in he 1960s, and Windows still betrays its origin as a single-user system. VMware is not strictly speaking an operating system. "VME still embodies some state-of-the-art ideas about computer design," says Allt.
So might we one day see VME managing cloud datacentres?
Allt is cautious. "I won't say that mainframes are cheap, but they are robust and they deliver very good value for money," he says.
Many companies that have redeveloped legacy applications for more "modern", typically client-server environments, have found the lifetime cost of ownership as high or higher because of all the extras, such as security, they have had to add to get equivalent functionality, Allt says.
He notes that some big new government systems, such as those at HM Revenue & Customs and the Department for Work and pensions, have gone spectacularly awry. "None of them was a VME system," he says.
Conceptually, there is little difference between mainframe and server-based datacentres. In fact, the larger the datacentre, especially when delivering software and storage as a service, the more it resembles a mainframe "glass house", locked down and streamlined for efficiency.
In the end, users don't care what they use," Allt says. "They treat IT as a black box, so it is irrelevant to them whether they are running VME or Windows or Linux behind the wall, just as long as they get the work done."