Compaq ends an era, retires VAX

The message boards at open-source software news site Slashdot .org read like a virtual wake on Wednesday, with friends gathering to trade anecdotes and share memories of the departed, after the news that Compaq Computer Corp. is finally retiring its line of VAX servers.

The VAX’s death was announced in a letter posted on Compaq’s VAX Web site and on the site’s product information page. The letter, written by Jesse Lipcon, vice-president of Compaq’s High Performance Server Division, explained Compaq’s decision by saying that the Houston, Texas-based company had “extended the VAX CPU technology as far as possible.” He also noted that many users had already replaced their VAX machines with higher-speed Alpha processor-based hardware.

“Thus, due to the rapidly diminishing demand for VAX hardware, and the associated business viability, Compaq will be announcing last order and ship dates for its VAX hardware products,” the letter said.

Compaq will accept its last VAX orders on Sept. 30 and will ship its last VAX computer on Dec. 30. Though Lipcon’s letter acknowledged that circumstances might change, it states that Compaq intends to offer technical support for these computers through 2010.

VAXen, as they’re called, are servers, built originally by the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), and now, after its purchase of DEC, by Compaq. The machines are tall – sometimes up to five feet tall – and in their design bear a distinct genealogical line to the room-filling systems of the 1950 and 1960s.

Employed for many of the same uses as their real estate-spanning ancestors, VAXen are still found in some corporations, and often power servers at colleges and universities. In their heyday – the 1970s and 1980s – VAXen were found everywhere heavy-duty computation was done.

“We lived by them,” said Stephen Lane, the interim manager of desktop systems administration at Ithaca College, in Ithaca, N.Y.

VAXen did all the processing for the math and computer science departments in the early 1990s at Ithaca, said Lane, as well as human resources work, and it is only within the last two years that the school stopped using a VAX as its e-mail server.

“Everything you did was on the VAX,” said Lane of his early years at Ithaca College.

Message boards at Slashdot, packed with tales from the last 25 years recounting the VAX’s soon-to-be legendary qualities, echoed Lane.

One Slashdot user, “InitZero,” praised the stability of the VAX his company has been using for 28 years.

“At the height of production, we had over 240 users on the system. All with just 40MB of memory … I’ve been working on this system for five years and it’s older than I am. In the last 11 years, we’ve not had a single minute of unscheduled down time that has had a production impact.”

Other users have posted stories about writing their first program, and even using a computer for the very first time, on a VAX. Messages have even included a eulogy or two, written in verse.

That retirement would be the VAX’s fate was not much of a surprise. As early as October 1999, Compaq posted a paper on its Web site discussing the VAX’s limitations and future. The paper called the VAX’s impending retirement a “natural evolutionary process.” Price considerations also played a large role in the decision to end the line, the paper said.

VAX systems not only “lagged in contrast with the price-and-performance improvements exhibited by Alpha and competitive platforms, but (also in) architectural limitations, I/O and peripheral support, applications and OS compatibility, and scalability issues.”

VAX does not depart Compaq’s product line without some outpouring of emotion, though.

In his letter, Lipcon wrote: “We are proud of the milestones that VAX products have brought to the world of computing. In an environment where computer technology becomes outdated in three to five years, VAX technology is still the heart of many businesses. VAX systems have been a 20-year industry standard.”

Ithaca College’s Lane agreed.

“(VAXen) worked for us then,” he said. “It was a good time. And even though we’re moving on, they served us well for a long time.”

On Slashdot, the feelings have been much the same. Readers have lamented the passing of an older era of computing, and with it, the values and knowledge of that time.

One user, “yakfacts,” summed up that feeling, writing, “The loss of the VAX represents a loss of knowledge and it is sad.”

Slashdot can be found at The letter written by Lipcon can be found at Information regarding dates for final VAX orders, shipments and support is at The paper regarding the planned retirement of VAX is at

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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