Q&A | The network is still the computer

Stick to the tried and true is Sun execs' byword for rebuilding the company's govt business

Bill Vass

Rick Steele

Scott McNealy

Rick Steele

Don't buy the hardware and the software, buy the services.

That's been the mantra in recent years for Scott McNealy and other executives at Sun Microsystems Inc.

Much of the company's future relies on the success of that concept, which McNealy said the federal government has started to adopt. At the Defense Information Systems Agency, for example, Sun owns and operates equipment in a DISA datacenter. Getting government customers on board with the services concept is critical for Sun, said McNealy, chairman of Sun Federal Inc. and chairman of the board of Sun Microsystems.

So far it does appear that Sun is in the midst of a comeback, said Dan Olds, an analyst with Gabriel Consulting Group Inc. Results of a recent survey by the IT consultancy show Sun advancing to the No. 2 slot as the preferred vendor among Unix customers. IBM Corp. still holds the lead, but Hewlett-Packard Co. now trails Sun.

"In our first survey, Sun was surprisingly a distant third, but in the second survey they bounced back hard and were a close second behind IBM," Olds said.

Successful product launches and increased revenues fueled the rebound, he said. "That takes away a couple of concerns customers had about Sun: Is Sun going to be a viable player? and Is Sun going to be able to successfully bring out advanced technology?" Olds said.

McNealy and Bill Vass, president and chief operating officer of Sun Federal, talked with Washington Technology staff writer Doug Beizer about the future of the company and the federal market.

WT: What has it been like focusing your attention on Sun Federal the last few months?

McNealy: I would say we've been pretty internally focused on fixing our shop the last few years, and now we've got this whole new product line and whole new story. We're growing again, gaining shares and we want to go out and make sure systems integrators understand we're ready to rumble again.

I'll tell you what, it's been a love fest, integrators are so excited about what we're doing. Each integrator thinks it has the "A" team, which is exactly how we want them to feel. And they all understand it's mankind versus IBM global services and HP. And we're all part of mankind.

Integrators love our open-source, open interface, community development engineering strategy.

We have an enormous position in the intelligence community and in the Navy, Army and Air Force. It's not like we're coming from nowhere; we just kind of took an internal breath to make sure we were all organized and had worked through all the product transitions.

WT: Are government agencies ready to adopt a thin-client model?

McNealy: They are one of the most aggressive adopters of thin-client computing and card access across the display grid model. You access that network remotely either over a wire line or wirelessly using smart-card authentication.
DISA is one of the biggest adopters of this technology, and we'll be rolling out up to 90,000 of these Sun Ray clients in the next year or so. So they love this idea, and they're proliferating.

In effect it is an open intranet within the secure community because it's multitenant. It's on Navy boats, it's in the FAA; this is a fairly pervasive technology, and it has quietly grown.

Vass: Because it's an ultrathin client, you don't replace it every couple of years, so once you've sold it, it stays there for 10 or 15 years in the environment, like a TV set. So you don't see the [sales] volumes because you sell it once and it stays there.

WT: As the network data load grows, how do you manage it all?

McNealy: First of all, 37 percent of the world's data is residing on the Sun platform, which I think is a staggering figure for people to understand. As the world moves to deleting nothing, which I'm OK with as a major repository for that data, we do take our responsibility seriously.

It's just a massive problem, but then again you also have identity access issues, who's who, what's what and who gets access to what? That's where our identity management product is probably the fastest growing and most strategic software component that we have today in the middleware stack. It helps manage the policy of who gets access to what, but it doesn't do a visualization of data.

Vass: Data management is really a business problem. Identity solves the technology problem of having lots of connectors to the legacy systems; when something changes about someone, it rips through everything to make those changes. But someone has to define what the policies are and who should have access to what.

WT: Are government agencies ready for the grid-computing model: buying services rather than hardware and software?

Vass: The DISA deal we just did is a utility computing deal where they don't buy the hardware and software, they buy the service. I think more and more enterprises will move toward buying a service, and more and more government customers will do the same.

DISA is buying that service in its own datacenter, but our end vision is you don't operate it in your own datacenter.

Lots of people run a high-performance computer every day on their desktop when they do a Google search. They don't realize there are hundreds of thousands of servers on the back end, and that it's delivered as a service. EBay is delivered as a service, salesforce.com is delivered as a service to your desktop.

Three or four years from now anybody that is running their own mail system in the unclassified space is a dinosaur. Why would you run your own mail system if you can get Gmail?

What will happen with this computerization of IT [is that] people will come into work and start using Gmail on their own. Show me a CIO who says, 'I've decided today that Google is going to be our Internet search engine.'

McNealy: We own and operate the equipment in DISA's datacenter. They own and operate the applications on that infrastructure. It is our equipment, we hold title to it. We migrate and update it on a prescribed basis, and we just charge them per CPU hour.

If they're not interested in going forward, they don't own equipment. We operate the equipment so they don't have extra headcount lying around, so they can throw us out and buy somebody else's equipment or bring somebody else's equipment in to use if our pricing isn't in line.

Some would argue that that is a dumb financial strategy. But we argue that it is a very pro-customer strategy where they don't get locked in. As a result, they're going be more willing to bring us in. I don't think anybody wants to build a new application on a mainframe, because they know what will happen: They're going to get stuck.

WT: How will opening Java help your customers and partners?

Vass: It will allow Java to move into the Linux world in a very big way because there isn't any argument about which open-source license you use. That's one of the reasons we did it.

And it will allow Java to proliferate across a much larger number of devices. A lot of people don't realize today that virtually every phone runs Java, that new Sony Blu-ray Disc players are running Java, and BMW dashboards are running Java. It is pervasive in your environment but you don't see it because the goal is to have an integrated experience; you shouldn't have to see it.

Since it is all open, sure, HP, IBM and Dell can come in and also compete there, but that's good for customers. All of our development tools are open-source and free.

You can download all of our products, all the source code you want. You can compile it yourself, you can integrate it yourself or you can come get a package from us. That's how open source works. But there are very few CIOs who are going to put their enterprise resource planning system on an open-source operating system and database with no support at all.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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