The future of Sun

Does Scott McNealy's vision of vertically integrated technology and simplified computing stack up?

On a major visit to the UK this week, taking in customers, media briefings and other events, even including a dawn-'til-dusk day of golf with Gary Player, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy has been doing his witty best to talk up his company's long-term prospects. But, Tony Hallett asks, does his vision of vertically integrated technology and simplified computing stack up?

No one can accuse Sun of kowtowing to other companies' technologies, other people's approaches to IT. From Java-based smart cards to various software to high-end 64-bit servers running on its own processor architecture, the company has what many like to call an end-to-end approach.

Known as a consummate seller of servers -- a tag that makes Sun execs wince -- the company enjoyed boom years in the late nineties. However, despite positive cash flow, recent quarters have seen sales tumble. Some are even writing off the vendor, in the face of threats on many fronts, in the form of the Linux operating system and the drive of rivals such as Dell, HP and IBM.

There seem to be two sides to Sun right now. There's the big picture vision, embodied in CEO Scott McNealy, and there's the experience of customers, users at the coalface looking at some tough times.

Listen to McNealy and -- not for the first time -- you may leave thinking the world is about to embrace everything he's peddling.

He talks up the company's position -- despite a jittery share price and business that may only just be recovering -- tending to focus on the battle with the big boys of the industry and simplifying IT.

On Microsoft and its big Web services offensive, he says: "Imagine no one was doing Java and everyone was doing .Net. Don't imagine it. It'd be a nightmare."

On interoperability, he says: "We interoperate with everything out there including Microsoft. Sometimes we interoperate better with Microsoft than Microsoft does."

So far, so McNealy. Only now he adds, despite the steady-not-stellar take up of Java, that: "Java won. It's over. Ain't even close. The world hasn't figured it out but Microsoft has and they don't quite know what to do about it."

Safe to say it's a position not just Microsoft would dispute.

But as one of the top tech CEOs, rather than as a man wrestling some of the world's biggest companies, McNealy's latest kick has been all about making computing easier.

"I don't see any other industry organised the way the computer industry has been. It doesn't make sense. It is stunningly inefficient," he says.

His concern, and one he has voiced in the recent past, is that maintaining systems is getting to be too much work. What's more, users are realising how under-utilised most of their kit is, whether it's storage, server 'sprawl' or something else.

So Sun is pitched as "the company that has all the pieces", an antidote to a heterogeneous, mixed-up world. Trouble is, many of his customers must live in such mixed-up worlds, for all sorts of reasons.

Dennis Beard, director of Information System Services at logistics company TNT, says: "I consider myself a business person. What I want to know is how to get to there from where I am now, with legacy applications and all the rest."

There are customers who are devoted to Sun but many a large datacentre operator -- the telcos, service providers and banks, for example -- operate mixed environments. Sun has traditionally been strong in the City of London but even some financial institutions, who have stuck with the company as it moved from workstations to high-end servers and storage, are weighing up their options.

One major competitor even reckons investment banks - famed for putting buy, hold or sell tags on their every decision -- are increasingly considering Sun a 'sell'. It's a claim Sun's new UK MD, Leslie Stretch -- a former City man himself -- denies.

Other users have seen huge benefits from embracing Sun's vision. University of Strathclyde is a big Sun fan, consolidating 20-30 servers to two big Sun machines and a storage area network, both mirrored across two campus sites. University portal software is written in Java and student and administration services have been greatly improved, according to Dr Stuart Brough, the university's director of information technology services. He proudly reports just two hours' downtime in two years (that's 0.99989 uptime, for the anoraks), and that was more to do with the local electricity company.

But such converts aren't as common as Sun would like. The answer, it maintains, is more investment for the long run. Manufacturing, befitting a now mature company, is in line with strict 'sigma' process metrics and best practice.

Increasingly, there are also pushes to deliver more to customers before boxes turn up. iForce centres allow users to mess around with configurations and hardware and software, while a 'customer-ready systems' initiative lets users dial-in to systems on the manufacturing facility floor. Feedback also flows from engineers at that level to R&D departments.

In some respects it is inconceivable anyone can doubt Sun as a long-term player. Its technology and people are first class and its vision compelling. However, so often an endgame, maybe five years in the future, is what's talked about -- that certainly seems to be the case with its N1 systems management framework, a subject for another time. The company's share price is jumpy, however, because analysts and investors are concerned about the here and now.

So two predictions, which aren't at all conflicting -- Sun is now more scrutinised than ever as a viable user choice, and Sun will be around for as long as we care to look into the future.