Why Sun Microsystems makes me angry

It’s not often in this job that I feel genuinely cross about an industry situation, but I find that’s the case with Sun Microsystems. before I start I should declare my hand – I used to run a Sun environment of a few tens of servers and a few hundred workstations. When I say “I used to run” to be fair I had a team of people doing most of the work, including Oracle DBAs, UNIX administrators, software tools people and the like, all of whom were pretty good at their jobs – but I did still get my hands dirty, mostly on the sysadmin side.

Sun was one of the very first companies I ever knew the tagline for – “the network is the computer” – something I first learned when I visited their offices to run some benchmarks on a cross-compiler available from the Catalyst catalogue. To be frank, twenty years on I’m still not sure what the tagline means if I think about it too hard – but it still sounds good. Perhaps Cisco has finally cracked it with its, “no, no, we’re not a server company,” Unified Computing fabric, but time will tell on that one! Something for another post perhaps, I’m here to talk about Sun.

Another declaration I should make is that I haven’t got a monopoly on the facts. But I have, in one way or another, been following Sun’s activities for the past couple of decades. For better or worse: while the hardware has frequently been impressive, and wile the level of innovation has been fantastic at points, equally, I have suffered the consequences of when ‘open systems’ meant ‘anybody can get in unless you know how to fill the holes’, the battles between BSD and System V, the dangers of having the wrong support contract, and so on and so forth. These are no rose-tinted spectacles, I assure you.

But today we see the company failing to agree a price for its own demise, having failed to convince the world that open source is ‘the one way’, and having failed to monopolise its clear advantages in development software, and yes, it makes me angry. Not because of these failures in particular, but because even while Sun has been under-performing in each of these, they all ignore what has always been the company’s core strength – that of building world-class data centres and surrounding infrastructures. Sun’s reputation and brand is built around IT architecture with all its ‘ilities’ attached – scalability, availability and the like. In this, Sun has not so much been giving away its crown jewels, more that it has left them to crumble into dust .

When and how did this happen? It’s difficult to argue otherwise than the wind went out of Sun’s hardware-centric sails five years ago, when the company became “the dot in dot-bomb”. Too much inventory of second hand stock, e-customers literally vanishing left, right and centre, massive commoditisation of the market (cf HP/Compaq), proprietary vs ‘industry standard’ all played their part. Scott McNealy may not have retired at that point, but a little part of the spark died, and the company was late to many parties after that (the decision to adopt AMD chips for example).

I could talk about Java, and my agreement with a Sun exec a few years ago that it wasn’t so much that Sun was in the wrong ball park, it didn’t even get that there was a game on. But software has always been peripheral to Sun, stuff that runs on the boxes. This isn’t what makes me angry however. What does is that a few people at the top of a company can be in denial about what great things it could be doing for its customers, and can set a strategy which not only ignores what people want from Sun Microsystems, it also ignores what the majority of customer organizations want from their IT. Here’s a clue: it’s not wall-to-wall open source, as the open source model is a means, not an end. Ultimately, as an ex-customer, I feel let down as the values I thought I shared with the company have been eroded to a point of irrelevance.

What should, or indeed can be done at this stage? If I knew I could be very rich of course, but that would also assume anyone at Sun Microsystems would listen – the company hasn’t been famous for this in the past. I would start squarely in the mindset of IT architecture, and building efficient platforms that can deliver appropriate service levels to enterprise and mid-market customers. Isn’t that what Sun does? I only wish I knew – it certainly isn’t what it seems to spend its time talking about. I would drop the argument about open source vs proprietary – it’s laughable, particularly given Sun and its own proprietary history. Sadly a Damascene conversion to open source and a few (arguably sound) acquisitions doesn’t make an open source company in practice. Its customers don’t want it from Sun, and Sun can’t deliver it.

Not everything that Sun is doing is necessarily bad – the cloud-for-developers approach also seems sound for example. But any goodness is being lost in the noise of delusion. I genuinely hope that Sun Microsystems, once proud, returns to its former $200 billion status, for the right reasons – notably that it is delivering what customers want. And on this latter point then, finally, if I were Sun I would stop talking about how great everything is (when the whole of the rest of the world knows it isn’t), knuckle down and start delivering.

How hard can it be.

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