Ancient VMS vs Unix joke

My post yesterday (Unix hair tearing) brought a couple of ageing VMS fans out of the wooodwork. Suddenly I remembered an old joke. Its long enough that I will put it in its own post, rather than in a comment. This joke was going the rounds about eighteen years ago when Starlink switched from VAXes to Unix machines, and suddenly we all had to get used to commands that seemed to be compact but incomprehensible gibberish, such as man, ps, rm, biff, ls, cat, etc…

A young scientist has an urgent job to finish, but disastrously the whole departmental network goes down apart from one ancient VAX. He hears there is an old-timer a few corridors away who still knows how to use the VAX, so he rushes down, bursts in, and insists that the old guy shows him what to do, because, you know, sorry, but this deadline is really important.

“Calm down”, says the old guy, “what do you want to know ?”

“Well, ok, for instance, how do I edit a file ?”


“Right, fine, suppose I want to make a copy ?”


“Err, right, ok, now suppose I need to delete the file ?”


“Ah, right, right, err.. now what if I want to print it ?”


“But what if I just want to see it typed onscreen ?”


“What if I need to figure out what a command does ?”


“Ummm.. umm…. suppose I want to create a new directory ?”


“Ok, ok, but look – how the hell am I supposed to remember all that ?”

The list goes on. Check out this comparison table of VMS and Unix commands.


30 Responses to Ancient VMS vs Unix joke

  1. Stuart Ryder says:

    Hence the number of users who when forced to switch from VMS to Unix created a .cshrc file full of commands like:

    alias copy ‘cp -i’
    alias directory ‘ls’

    etc. I also remember a poster from the late-1980s that used to hang in the computer user area at Mt Stromlo Observatory from a vacuum cleaner company also named VAX which stated simply “Nothing sucks like a VAX”.

  2. Paul says:

    I’m intrigued as to whether the 18 years ago is an accurate number… I’ve been in astronomy properly for 16 years (srsly?!?) and generally had the impression when I started that the VAXen had been re-purposed as boat anchors long ago… I did have to deal with one briefly as an undergrad though.

    Ah yes, but if it was that simple, what was all that SET DEF DISK$[VOLUME].\PUNCHEDCARD{;3} stuff that I remember never getting to grips with? 🙂

  3. andyxl says:

    Paul – (a) I could be easily be a few years out. I rememember it being just before I came to ROE, which was seventeen and a half years ago, but I am happy to be corrected. (b) It was only the everyday basics that was easy for VMS. Every OS I know gets hairy once you start doing clever stuff. A while ago I tried writing some AppleScripts. Doing hello world etc was dead easy, but when I tried real world stuff I quickly lost motivation.

    • ian smail says:

      the first sparcs arrived in durham in ~1992 (from HST funds) – so we were mostly VAX based until at least the mid-90s.

      p.s. thanks for the COMMAND_MODE tip – i can never remember the options for the mac-version of ps

    • Bob Mann says:

      As someone whose eyes roll whenever people of a certain age reminisce about formative experiences on a PDP-11 over lunch, I hesitated before replying to note that ROE’s first Sun machine must have been installed around 1992, too.

      I had one of the first logins on it, and, after finally getting my code to run (a.out…eh?) and comparing run times with the VAX, I remember thinking, with what seems now like a distinct lack of ambition, that this was more computing power than I could possibly use.

      I know that Moore’s law has marched on with inexorable uniformity since the mid-60s, but, in terms of user experience, the VAX-to-Unix transition seemed like a step-change in computing power – and the only one I’ve experienced in my ~20 years in astronomy.

      • John Peacock says:

        Bob: you’re right about SparcStations seeming impressively fast compared to VAXes in 1992, and I too was struck by this. But don’t let’s forget that DEC struck back, and by 1995-ish we had DEC’s new Alpha chip: I remember Sparc-to-Alpha as being a bigger revolution than VAX-to-Sparc. I had a student at the time, Stephen Dodds, who was struggling with getting a code to run on a Sparc in a finite time. Then the first Alpha arrived: when I asked him how the code went on that, he produced the memorable phrase “John, it goes like s**t off a hot shovel…”. But Alphas ran a version of unix, alas.

        And anyway, Bob, PDP-11’s are relatively recent. If your eyerolling is related to me, you mean PDP-8.

      • andyxl says:

        Unix is important but accidental in this story. The point is the invention of the RISC chip, which made fast workstations possible. At least I think thats right. One of the founders of Sun was Bill Joy, who had a key role in BSD Unix, and wrote vi and csh. So I guess SPARC using Unix was inevitable. DEC Alpha came after SPARC, so that was that I guess.

      • ian smail says:


        yes – those PDP11 (or 8) stories do wear you down after a while… so i will now do the same for the 40-somethings:

        …my first experience with a SPARC was as a grad student – liberating one from Tom Shanks’s office in ~92 and then nearly dropping the (massive) 20″ monitor down a flight of stairs. once it was safely ensconced in my office (much lower down in the building, and lacking the view of the cathedral) i could vicariously enjoy the wonders of IRAF (and also run tree-code N-bodies for ben moore with all those spare CPU cycles). no more having to book time on an Ikon display (had to go searching for that old name in dev$graphcap, but eventually found it in an old STARLINK webpage).

        not so sure about the resurgence of alpha’s vs sparcs – all i remember is a sequence of sparc 1, sparc 2, sparc 5, sparc 10, sparc 20 (at caltech), ultrasparc, etc – until linux came along and it all became too obviously too expensive (something Mac’s are currently duplicating, unless you fit your own memory/disks).

        [i assume philip is enjoy a well deserved rest – otherwise this Vax thread would be much longer]

      • ian smail says:

        interestingly “( or 8 )” turns into that odd smiley-face thing in shades… an odd reaction to an aside relating to JAP

      • “But Alphas ran a version of unix, alas.”

        Of course, he could have run VMS on that same ALPHA, and had better compilers, an excellent debugger and, of course, VMS as well.

  4. telescoper says:

    Have you ever tried “man sex” on a starlink unix machine?

    • andyxl says:

      OK, so thats gives me the manual page for the well known package Sextractor.

      Actually, the result is think more amusing if I do the same thing on my Mac terminal. It responds “no manual entry for sex”.

      • telescoper says:

        Yes, I was similarly disappointed, although I did wonder for a while whether Sex Tractor might be a Ukrainian porn film.

  5. andyxl says:

    I am trying to wait a respectable period of time before trying.

  6. MikeW says:

    A friend visiting one evening seemed to be unusually interested in the pile of books on top of the TV. Only later did we realise he probably wanted to know what kind of LaTeX we needed a manual for.

  7. Duncan says:

    PDP-8? psh – new-fangled things. Yesterday I was talking to a young colleague who is studying journalism & earth sciences. I mentioned the slide rule, and she asked “what’s that?” “Well, if you add logarithms… oh, never mind…”

  8. Due to complete coincidence, I had occasion to email the following to someone earlier today:

    2230 /*
    2231 * If the new process paused because it was
    2232 * swapped out, set the stack level to the last call
    3333 * to savu(u_ssav). This means that the return
    2235 * actually returns from the last routine which did
    2236 * the savu.
    2237 *
    2238 * You are not expected to understand this.
    2239 */
    2240 if(rp->p_flag&SSWAP) {
    2241 rp->p_flag =& ~SSWAP;
    2242 aretu(u.u_ssav);
    2243 }

    Then Dennis and Brian worked on a truly warped version of Pascal, called “A”.
    When we found others were actually trying to create real programs with A,
    we quickly added additional cryptic features and evolved into B, BCPL, and finally C.
    We stopped when we got a clean compile on the following syntax:
    for(;P(“\n”),R=;P(“|”))for(e=C;e=P(“_”+(*u++/ 8)%2))P(“|”+(*u/4)%2);
    [Ken Thompson]

    Linux is only free if your time has no value.
    [Jamie Zawinski]

    Ken Thompson has an automobile which he helped design.
    Unlike most automobiles, it has neither speedometer, nor gas gauge, nor any of the other numerous idiot lights which plague the modern driver.
    Rather, if the driver makes a mistake, a giant “?” lights up in the center of the dashboard.
    “The experienced driver,” says Thompson, “will usually know what’s wrong.”

    To me, vi is Zen.
    To use vi is to practice zen.
    Every command is a koan.
    Profound to the user,
    unintelligible to the uninitiated.
    You discover truth every time you use it.

  9. John Womersley says:

    actually, how you deleted a file in VMS was usually

    DELETE filename.ext

    DELETE filename.ext;*

  10. I spent a _lot_ of time with VMS during my PhD, I loved the (orange, then grey) manual wall, was the only person in my entire group who understood how to use ACLs, accumulated a modest collection of privileges, wrote bits of MACRO assembler, used a fair bit of the library, grokked TPU, CMS, MMS, plus other ones I’ve forgotten, and I wrote and distributed DCL and C/TPU ( shows how to solve a problem using more languages than may seem strictly necessary). I was a VMS Person.

    Yet the first time I used unix, it was like coming home. It was so damn _friendly_, albeit in a rather laconic way. Yes, it has its annoyances, here and there, but it immediately seemed so much more… organic, that within a very short time, and still, if I found myself at a VMS prompt I’d find myself repelled by its chilly mechanical pallor. Ugh, shudders.

    Memory lane: the road to the crypt.

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  15. I love how people keep referring to VAXen vs Unix machines, when they’re really talking about VMS vs. Unix. You can run Unix on a VAX too, you know. You can run Unix on anything. It’s like when people talk about PC’s vs. Macs when they’re really talking about Windows vs. MacOS.

    • This blog is rather dormant; what brought you here?

      • rperlberg says:

        For some reason I was thinking about an old project I did under VMS. We had to port a project from Unix to VMS and I thought it was ironic that the company has probably now abandoned VMS and gone back to Unix. So I Googled “is vms dead” and this was one of the hits.

      • There is a lesson to be learned from the fact that VMS is still around and this blog is essentially dead. 😐

  16. Peter Allan says:

    VMS is actually alive and well. HP decided to stop developing it a couple of years ago, so a company was set up to provide continuing support. It is called VMS Software Inc. As well as supporting current HP hardware, they are in the process of porting VMS to the x64_64 architecture and plan to release this in 2019. I have spoken to one of the developers and they clearly know their stuff technically and are clear about their target markets, so I have great hopes for the company.

    Personally, I run VMS at home on software that simulates the VAX hardware on a PC. It is so much faster than the actual VAX hardware.

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