Scott McNealy | Slaying Frankensteins one at a time

Interview with Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems and now chairman of Sun Federal Inc.

Scott McNealy, Sun Federal Chairman

Rick Steele

He thinks your data centers resemble a 19th-century fictional beast. And that you're behind the times if you're reading this online via a Windows-based PC. Did we mention Scott McNealy is forthcoming with his opinions?

Last month, McNealy stepped down as CEO of Sun Microsystems Inc., handing over the reigns to Jonathan Schwartz [GCN Interview, Feb. 21, 2005]. At the same time, he assumed the mantle of chairman at Sun Federal Inc., which focuses on the government. As the company continues its turnaround, with open-source software, x86 servers, a utility grid and more, GCN got a chance to sit down with McNealy to find out what he has in store for feds.

GCN: Has anything changed since you stepped down as CEO, or is it business as usual?

McNealy: It's been pretty busy. The e-mail has been a little harder to keep up with. I'm on a pretty aggressive travel schedule. ... The best thing I can do to support Jonathan is to stay out of his hair as he grabs hold and gets his team all sorted out.

GCN: What will be your role as chairman of Sun Federal?

McNealy: The U.S. government is the number-one customer for Sun. It's the biggest and most important customer we have. There's two sides to it. There's the whole Defense Department, intelligence community, law enforcement, homeland security arena, which is a strength and installed base [for us]. ... The other side is e-gov, the civilian agency kinds of things, which are about building the citizen portal. That's an area where it's very fragmented. Each organization has built their own, I call them, 'Frankenstein' data centers, using best-of-breed or obsolete technology, often, and there's a huge opportunity for us to add value throughout utility compute models, through open standards and integrated solutions that get the government out of the business of building and operating data centers and into the business of delivering services to their constituencies.

GCN: Is there something about the government market that draws you personally to it?

McNealy: Being an American who pays lots of taxes, I think there's an opportunity here to lower the tax rate significantly just by getting the government to use technology a little more efficiently. Seriously, if there ever was an opportunity [this is it]. Health care is the other big beneficiary of IT, but it seemed [government] was a little more focused.

GCN: You mentioned health IT. What should the government's role be in driving health IT?

McNealy: I've been talking to Secretary [Mike] Leavitt for years about the architecture, and my comment is always the computer industry is more screwed up than any industry in the world except health care, which kills everyone eventually. ... You've got a pretty large-scale problem with a lot of fragmentation, and every computer interface, architecture and component that's ever been invented has been applied to solving the health care IT problem, so you've got Noah's Ark'you've got two of everything. The U.S. government has to decide which side of the street you drive on. If we don't, we have chaos.

Let's take document formats. It's actually a very topical and raging debate right now. Everybody's got Word documents, and spreadsheets, and presentations and other things. What format do you save them to so you can render, modify and share? Do you do it in Office so that you have to buy an Intel and Microsoft computer to get at your own data? Do you do it on PDF so everyone has to go to Adobe and pay a royalty? Or do you do it in an open format? We've been arguing and supporting all three choices, but we think the right answer for the government is to support an interface that is open, royalty-free, multivendor and supported by a standards body. The Open Document Format is a natural. [Editor's Note: Earlier this month, the International Organization for Standardization approved ODF as a standard. Microsoft's OpenXML standard is also before the ISO.]

GCN: In March at FOSE you kicked off the Sun Grid. Have customers bought in to utility computing?

McNealy: It's still early. We just turned on the first Edison light bulb last quarter and we've got hundreds or thousands of customers who are using it. You name it, someone's doing it on the grid.

GCN: But does government approach the grid differently than commercial or research customers?

McNealy: I don't think the government actually knows how to use computers. They know how to use networks, but they wouldn't know how to buy networks. They don't know how to use computing, but they know how to buy computing. It's a trained response they have. 'All right, I need to do some computing, let's go buy a computer.' If they need to make a phone call, they don't buy a telephone network, they get a subscription. It's just going to take a while before people think you can subscribe to [a grid].

GCN: Sun's thin-client platform is strong, but how's adoption? Do enterprises have a mental block against thin-client computing?

McNealy: Not in the government. It turns out the government is an early adopter of that technology'way more aggressively. It's showing up on Navy ships, in the FAA, the Defense Department Intelligence Information Systems group. ... It solves the absolute terror that most government CIOs have around privacy and mission-critical computing. The government can't afford the security breach a laptop [presents], for example.

GCN: Does the upcoming release of Microsoft Windows Vista and the wave of upgrades it could bring present an opportunity to get agencies off the Windows thick-client platform?

McNealy: I think the new desktops are thin-client kiosks, Java phones, Java-enabled set-top boxes. The new Blu-ray DVD players are basically Java computers that have a DVD reader bundled in; Sony is putting the Blu-ray/Java architecture into the PlayStation 3. Many kids, the last thing they do to get on the Internet is log in to a PC.

GCN: But in the enterprise we're all logging on through a Windows desktop.

McNealy: You old geezer [laughs]. You're an old geezer already, aren't you? Get with it, man.

GCN: Maybe. But is this a chance for organizations to explore a Linux desktop, or a Java desktop, or something else?

McNealy: If you believe in fat clients. Microsoft kinda owns the fat-client space, but the real world is all about thin. Thin is in.

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