Sun shines hot on the grid

Government should look to subscription model for network needs

"Some of the great museum pieces are still running in federal data centers around the world," says Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems Inc.

Rick Steele

When a government agency needs telephone service, it doesn't go out and buy dozens of components, build a switching system and run its own network. It simply buys a subscription for the service from a telecommunications company.

That same subscription model is how the government should be satisfying its computer and networking needs, said Scott McNealy, the former CEO of Sun Microsystems Inc., Santa Clara, Calif. Rather than build data centers, buy racks of machines and install chillers to keep them cool, agencies should think of data centers as they would a utility, and buy computing power much as they would water or electricity: from a public or private grid.

Under the build-it-yourself model, government entities wound up with expensive IT infrastructures that were obsolete by the time they were built, McNealy said.

"Each organization has built its own ? I call them Frankenstein data centers ? often using best-of-breed or obsolete technology," he said. "I believe there's a huge opportunity for us to add a lot of value."

Following a board of directors' vote in April, McNealy has begun his shift to a new role: chairman of Sun Federal Inc. In this capacity, McNealy plans to spend much of his time trying to convince government agencies that moving to a subscription-based method makes more sense than the old way of doing business.

In McNealy's view, the ever-growing influence of the Internet is leading to the need for grid computing.

"We're moving into the participation age, where everybody is getting on the Internet," McNealy said. "Everybody is a publisher, everybody is an editor. We're blogging, we're podcasting, we're doing mash-ups, we're doing electronic commerce."

This creates an obvious need for grid computing, he said. "The biggest opportunity ? is the e-government opportunity, because those are the largest communities," he said.

Time has come?

The concept that the network is the computer is something Sun has advocated for years, said Tony Iams, senior analyst with Ideas International Ltd., Rye Brook, N.Y.

"The whole idea of software as a service has intrigued people since the emergence of the Internet," Iams said. "People have been fascinated by this idea of doing everything over the network and trying to let others take care of the basic hosting problems as much as possible."

Security is among the challenges inherent in grid computing. "That's probably one of the thorniest problems associated with grid computing, especially as you cross organizational boundaries," Iams said.

Matthew Murray, chief technology officer at Raytheon Co., Waltham, Mass., also said security is grid computing's biggest, though not insurmountable, challenge when it comes to the federal government.

"The Defense Department cannot have its data at rest in China," Murray said. "It can't even have its data at rest in an area where a kid on Yahoo can get to it."

The solution likely will be to build grids on protected, government facilities where top-secret, or even higher, classified data can reside. That type of private grid would have the advantages of the public subscription model, said Robert Bredehoft, Sun's vice president of global government industry sales.

For a private grid, an integrator might put together a data center for a particular government agency or collection of agencies. The grid then could be made available to different Defense Department offices, for example, and it would be available on a subscription basis, "but within the physical and logical confines of the government operation, so that would it would be private," Bredehoft said.

A public grid could be used for applications that aren't as sensitive as the Pentagon's work. The public grid would be available to several customers who would pay for it only when they need it.

An oil exploration company, for example, uses a public grid when it needs to process highly parallel work, Bredehoft said.

"The company itself has a good infrastructure for computing, but as the requirements are escalating to produce more oil, they're using the grid for additional capacity," he said. "That's the public grid that's accessible, on a commercial basis, by anyone."

Simple, plus savings

Another advantage to grid computing is that, when it's coupled with open standards, it makes it much easier and cheaper for government customers to move from one IT system to the next, McNealy said.

Government agencies often stick with systems that don't perform to expectations because of the huge upfront investment they've made, as well as the further costs to switch, he said. Those huge outlays of money could be barriers to agencies adopting the new subscription paradigm Sun is advocating.

"I don't envy the public sector purchasing process," McNealy said. "Being the CIO in the public sector is incrementally challenging, because you operate under so many constraints."

Often, computer systems continue to run without ever getting upgraded, he said. "Some of the great museum pieces are still running in federal data centers around the world," he said.

The longer old technology is allowed to languish, the more difficult it can be to get rid of it, for example, "because we don't have lots of great migration tools from an old Centers for Disease Control mainframe," McNealy said.

Even though government officials are accustomed to buying subscriptions for services such as long-distance calling, making that conceptual leap to IT as a service still is a foreign idea for those government customers.

"When you tell them to go build a data center and deliver a Web service, they get into this construction mode," McNealy said. "I'm not even sure that [government customers] know how to buy computing and storage on a subscription model, so we have a little anthropology to go break."

McNealy said Sun has a wealth of experience helping customers migrate from the old world to the new. The work is never easy, but the payoffs are huge, he said.

"It's just a medical procedure that I believe every data center has to go through," he said. "We'll provide as much anesthesia as possible, but it is not going to be totally pain free and without recuperation time."

Iams said there is a good chance the federal government eventually will adopt Sun's concept, despite the security concerns.

"This is the company that's been saying for some time that the network is the computer," he said. "If you look at their research and product directions over the years, they've clearly invested in trying to tackle some of those problems. They understand networking computing, of which grid is a subset."

Writer Doug Beizer can be reached at

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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