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HP 9000 and PA-RISC Computers Story

Introduction

This page describes the HP 9000 PA-RISC line of computers from HP from the 1980s to the 2000s. The HP 9000 Series were a set of technical servers and workstations sold for almost three decades by HP and included a diverse platforms of Unix computers. Both RISC and Unix were developed into coherent products during the 1980s, moving from academia via industrial R&D to productization at a time when much computing was still done on mainframes, minicomputers and time-sharing machines such as DEC PDP, VAX, IBM AS/400 and System/360.

PA-RISC computer period table
Period Series Classes
Prelude: Early 1980s
Other HP 9000 200, 300, 500 series
I Infancy: Late 1980s
HP 9000 800 Early 840 to 870
Other HP 9000 400, 600 series
II Growth: 32-bit 1990s
HP 9000 700 Snakes 720/730/750
Desktop 715/725
Small 705/710
HP 9000 800 E-Class, F/G/H/I-Class
Mainframes 890
VME industrial 742, 745, 747
III Maturity: 1990s heydays
HP 9000 700 Pizzabox 712 and 715
VME industrial 743, 744, 748
Visualize workstations B-Class
C-Class
J-Class
Lettered servers A-Class
D-Class, R-Class, K-Class
L-Class and N-Class
S-Class, X-Class Convex
V-Class
Mainframes T-Class
IV Decline: 2000s
Integrity rp servers
Itanium rx servers
Itanium workstations
Mainframes Superdome

HP 9000 and the PA-RISC series were HP’s new line of products in that fledging market in the early 1980s. This page focuses on this PA-RISC part of that story, divided into four periods from the 1980s to the 2000s.

Prelude: In the early 1980s, HP worked on both Unix and RISC development and products. Before PA-RISC, the original HP 9000 series was released with the FOCUS-based 500 series (9020). In parallel, the Motorola 68000 were added as HP Unix workstations.

I. Infancy: HP moved into the fledging microcomputer market in the late 80s with several differently positioned platforms. PA-RISC computers of the HP 9000 Series 800 were HP’s RISC entry into that market. The other, CISC, HP 9000 offerings were sold by HP in parallel for almost a decade. The PA-RISC 9000 800 series were offered as servers initially for business applications, but were quickly adapted for technical and engineering. Several processor, fabrication and systems design were tried by HP in those late-1980s days with the 800s.

II. Growth: Much of the growth and major developments of HP 9000 and PA-RISC happened in the early 1990s. To round up and segment its offerings, HP released a dedicated PA-RISC workstation line, the HP 9000 700 series. Based on the new, CMOS PA-RISC 1.1 processors, the original workstations consisted of the Snake 720/730/750, smaller systems (705/710) and technical desktops (715/725). They were often used as a platform for Unix-based graphics, engineering and R&D, and slowly became popular for high-end use cases.

III. Maturity: Many products were released and the line-up matured during the 1990s, from small desktops to large server cabinets and mainframe-type computers, under increasing complex brands and series names. PA-RISC moved from 32-bit to 64-bit with the revamped PA-8000 processors and its subsequent successors up to the Mako PA-8800.

IV. Decline: HP slowly transitioned to a post-RISC phase in the 2000s, with a long-planned move to VLIW Itanium IA64 for its technical and Unix offerings. The decline of PA-RISC was set in stone much earlier than that, with the mid-1990s joint development of Itanium together with Intel, but decided with the advent of Carly Fiorina as HP CEO. Beginning in the late 1980s, PA-RISC systems often wore the crown of fastest technical (RISC AND Unix) workstations until the heydays of the 90s, albeit at a (boutique) price. PA-RISC was relegated to a niche market of special servers, the rp Integrity PA-RISC servers. As a result of that and a changing market environment, PA-RISC slowly was phased out of the technical HP line-up.

The following sections for the various HP 90000 series’ are mostly ordered chronologically.

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HP 9000 800 servers

The original PA-RISC computers were the HP 9000 800 servers developed by HP in the 1980s and released in late 1980s. They consisted of several computers based on 32-bit PA-RISC 1.0 and 1.1 processors and different designs. System architecture was rather divergent to the 700s workstations with different chipsets, buses and I/O devices. HP 9000 700 series was introduced slightly later than the 800s, with a different, more workstation-centric focus.

Due to their separate system design and usage scenarios, HP 9000 700 and 800 series used different HP-UX Unix versions for a long time, until HP-UX 10.20. Support for these 800 systems in open source systems has always been limited, due to sparse documentation on their architecture. The 800 series PA-RISC servers carried on into the Lettered servers of the A/D/K/N-classes that still kept a divergent architecture to the 700 and Visualize workstations focused on multi-user business applications.

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HP 9000 700 workstations

A large range of PA-RISC workstations was sold by HP from the 1990s on with the HP 9000 700 series. These soon became popular 32-bit Unix workstations on a RISC platform, and used HP’s own new processors like the PA-7000, PA-7100 and PA-7100LC. At that time, much technical computing moved to Unix and RISC workstations, superseding older CISC computers. These new workstations were often used for CAD, CAM and specialized software and applications for HP-UX or Unix. As HP acquired Apollo Computers around the time, the Apollo name and technology was part of some workstations, sometimes called HP Apollo 9000.

PA-RISC 700 workstations gained wide popularity in engineering, industrial and academic fields during the 1990s. During that time, PA-RISC with the 700s workstations traded the performance crown of Unix and RISC computers frequently with DEC Alpha architecture. Due to that, 700 series workstations were often acquired for high-end boutique applications and priced accordingly.

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VME and industrial

The 740s VME-based PA-RISC computers were part of the HP 9000 700 series, sold from the early to late 1990s, used for industrial, scientific and military data measurement and real time control applications. These single-board computers utilized the industrial-grade VME bus for that. Processors included 32-bit PA-RISC PA-7100, PA-7100LC and PA-7300LC with HP LASI and ASP chipsets and some custom VME designs.

Operating systems were native HP-UX and HP-RT, the latter for real-time applications, with some supported in Open Source operating systems including Linux and BSD. They were used in a very wide variety of applications for industrial and scientific control and measurement, including by the US military.

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Visualize Workstations

From the mid-1990s on, HP sold its PA-RISC workstations with lettered class names: the B, C and J-Class systems, still formally part of the 9000 700 series. Most of them were sold with Visualize branding indicating a focus on their preferred applications and use cases. They were were geared towards graphics and engineering applications such as CAD or CAM and often used with HP’s powerful Visualize and Visualize-FX graphics adapters. Processors were almost the whole range of PA-RISC CPUs from 32-bit PA-7200 up to 64-bit PA-8900.

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Lettered servers

In parallel to the workstations, HP 9000 servers were renamed with lettered designators and included a spectrum of different 32- and 64-bit PA-RISC computers. These servers were quite powerful at the time of the 1990s with diverse configurations and designs, from the small A-Class to the mid-size D-Class and cabinet-size K-Class. Also during that time, the system architecture between 700s workstations and 800s servers began to converge, only to start diverging again in the late-1990s with the Cell and Stretch architectures, when HP moved to hardware virtualization.

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Mainframes

The label mainframe is used rather broadly here to include all larger HP PA-RISC computers with a large amount of computing resources that were either multi-processor or cluster-type systems. Some were HP’s own development, like the T-Class, an outgrow of the original 800 series servers, and the later Superdome, while others were either co-developed or acquired externally, like the SPP Exemplar architecture from Convex.

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Integrity

HP renamed its PA-RISC servers again in the early 2000s into the rp series, and shifted the focus of PA-RISC more towards servers with that move. The rp servers were based on 64-bit PA-RISC processors from the PA-8500 to the PA-8800, all multi-processor. Only the first rp branded systems shared design features with contemporary workstations and older servers, while the rest were new, server-only designs.

With the rp range HP moved its PA-RISC offering closer to the new Itanium architecture, which were called rx. Product and technical design was similar between rp and rx, and the PA-RISC rp moved strongly towards Itanium design with the zx1 chipsets and upgrade paths to IA64 processors. The rp were the last line of PA-RISC servers.

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Itanium

Around the turn of the century, HP started to offer servers and workstations based on Itanium IA64 technology, a VLIW architecture jointly designed with Intel. System architecture between the PA-RISC rp and IA64 rx servers converged with similar designs and chipsets. The zx1 chipset and Itanium buses were used and Itanium slowly phased out PA-RISC from HP’s technical and Unix lineup, albeit at least half a decade later than originally planned.

This was the end of the PA-RISC platform at HP, which vanished with diminishing market share until the mid-2000s. The process of the long decline of RISC and commercial Unix servers was already underway then, with Unix relegated to special applications and later to high-end, mission-critical servers. HP started withdrawing from Unix workstations before Itanium, but pared down its offering even further with the new CPU architecture. Shipments of Itanium workstations ceased two years after release, at the time when Intel moved the x86 architecture to 64-bit. Originally envisaged as an industry-changing architecture, Itanium ended up as alternative to other RISC platforms it was meant to replace, and marked the end-phase of HP Unix and RISC platforms.

On a side tangent of history, HP inherited both DEC Alpha RISC and OpenVMS through its acquisition of Compaq in the early 2002, both had been having rivals for HP platforms for decades. After discontinuing DEC Alpha, OpenVMS was to find a new home with the Itanium platform at HP, to which it was ported around 2005 to run on HP rx servers, being the first computers to offer both HP-UX and OpenVMS.

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Other series

There were a few other computer series offered under the HP 9000 label before PA-RISC computers were released. This includes early Unix platforms from HP based on Motorola m68k CISC processors, the HP FOCUS line that preceeded PA-RISC and the HP 3000 minicomputers, that later switched to PA-RISC.

The HP 9000 200 series were the earliest incarnations of HP Unix platforms based on Motorola 68000, and started life as HP 9826 in 1981, all using the Motorola 68000 processor. Soon followed by other high-end technical desktops, such as the HP 9836, 9816, 9920, 9817 and 9837H, there series was renamed in the early 1980s to HP 9000 200 series, and the individual computers to, for example HP 9000/220 (for the 9920). The 200s also ran versions of HP-UX Unix.

The other series based on Motorola M68k processors was the HP 9000 300 series, sold from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s and also a Unix platform. The 300s had a new, functional design with several distinct boxes for each computer, a design later taken over for the first HP 9000 700s series workstations. The 300 series used Motorola CISC processors from the 68010 up to the -40. Besides HP-UX, the 300 series were supported by a variety of BSD operating systems from the 1980s well into the 2010s, including the mythical 4.4BSD and the OpenBSD/hp300 and NetBSD/hp300 siblings.

Related to the 300 series but incorporating technology from the 1989 acquisition of Apollo Computers, the HP 9000 400 series were based on Motorola 68030 and 68040 processors and ran HP-UX and Domain/OS (Apollo Unix). The 400 series were sold in parallel to PA-RISC computers of the 700 and 800 series in the early 1990s, and were widely supported by BSD and open source operating systems. Many designs, devices and peripherals were shared between the Motorola 68000-based 400 series and the PA-RISC 700 and 800 series, including the SGC and EISA buses, SCSI controllers, HP-HIL and HP-IB peripherals, graphics adapters.

The HP 3000 line were the HP business minicomputers, first released in 1972, with their own operating system MPE, application stack and distinct customer base. From the late 1980s on, HP 3000 moved to the PA-RISC platform and used systems that were closely based on the HP 9000 800 series. HP 3000 used PA-RISC actually earlier than the widely-popular HP 9000 700 workstation series. The first MPE for PA-RISC release was MPE/XL, the last MPE version was MPE/iX with limited Unix support and POSIX compliance. HP 3000 and MPE have been discontinued since.

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About

This page is an attempt to unify all the different leads and streams of HP 9000 and PA-RISC into a single story, but simplifications were made. The information on this page is based mostly on existing OpenPA content, but also includes new content and interpretation of other sources. Some pieces were sourced from the great HP Computer Museum, but also from news releases, journals or HP Labs communication.

For release dates of HP 9000 computers and their entry prices, there is also the PA-RISC Timeline page. A tabular overview of HP 9000 PA-RISC systems is on the main PA-RISC Computers section that links to pages with more details for individual systems. The history of PA-RISC processors and system architecture is covered briefly in the PA-RISC Hardware page.

The history of PA-RISC operating systems merits its own article, which is covered in the PA-RISC Operating Systems page. Four main streams of systems are covered — commercial Unix, open source, research projects, and others. Release dates and versions are in more detail on the PA-RISC Timeline.

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