Sun plans 'computer free' HQ

Sun has been suffering financially but the company claims it is continuing to innovate and recently won its largest ever UK contract.

Sun has decided to take the thin-client model to its logical extreme and move an entire UK branch office to thin clients running over a wide area network (WAN).

Speaking to ZDNet UK on Thursday, Sun's UK managing director Leslie Stretch revealed plans to replace the several hundred thin clients running off local servers in the company's City office, near London Bridge, with thin clients running over a WAN by the end of this year.

Click here for the full interview.

"In this office by the end of this year we will have no computers at all. Of the two- to three-hundred seats we have here at the moment, we have no desktops but we do have local servers. By the end of 2004 there will be no physical servers in the office at all, just lines of switches. We have an experimental line in here at the moment for something we call the Wan Ray," he said.

The Wan Ray is an extension of Sun's Sun Ray concept -- thin clients activated by a Java smart card which allows a user to move from machine to machine mid-session without having to re-boot. The Wan Ray will work in a similar way but over a wide area network and does away with the need to have local servers.

"I can pull up my desktop, it can be in Scotland, it can be in Fleet [Sun UK HQ], and instead of going through a local server it just goes through the switch room. It's a kind of counter-intuitive message -- don't buy computers -- but it's a huge cost saving for us, "said Stretch.

Despite being in the financial doldrums of late, this month Sun reported a narrower than-expected second quarter loss of around $125m compared to $2.3bn a year ago.

From a UK perspective, Stretch put the revenue improvement down to a number of large private sector deals, including Sun's inclusion in a consortium headed by BT to provide the 'data spine' to support national electronic patient records. The value of this project to Sun is believed to be around $250m.

"On the patient care records system -- most of our December production capacity in the UK was probably taken up with the computers for that. It's huge for us, it's our largest ever contract in the UK," said Stretch.

He also revealed that the company received an order for around 5,000 seats of its Java Desktop from a UK public sector customer -- the name of which should be announced in the next few weeks.

"We received that purchase order on 19th December and the roll-out has started already," he said.

Sun also revealed that the Office of Government Commerce was carrying out  a series of workshops in its London City office around its evaluation of Java Enterprise System -- following the framework that was announced just before Christmas.

"We have been investing in the public sector for years now but it's only in the last six months that has turned into contracts. So from a revenue perspective the public sector is the future," said Stretch.

Sun has been pushing the thin-client message for around ten years but on the whole it has failed to gel with users. But the company is hoping that the momentum behind its Java Desktop, combined with the numerous security scares around Windows, could help tip the balance away from Microsoft and fat clients.

Research from IDC published last year showed that interest in the thin-client model is increasing -- although Sun failed to make it into IDC's list of top ten vendors in the area, which included Wyse, HP/Compaq and Neoware. According to IDC, nearly 440,000 thin client systems were shipped in 2002 in Western Europe, an increase of 23 percent over 2001.

"Thin-client architectures, including dedicated and PC hardware, are a viable solution for many business problems, including security, system management concerns and application deployment. We see increased interest in this market and expect growth to continue," said Chris Ingle, group consultant for IDC's EMEA Systems Group.