Sun CIO flies the flag

Bill Vass is a bit different from other CIOs. For a start, he is CIO at one of the IT information industry's giants, Sun Microsystems. That's one big job. Then he has the other role of interfacing with customers. That's a huge role too.

It means that, in the immortal words of another vendor once used about its own products, Vass has to eat his own dog food -- use his own company's products -- and his message, as one would expect, is that it is good.

"Being CIO at Sun means things are a little different in some ways from the way things are for CIOs at other companies," he says. "We have the same issues of cost, but other CIOs often come to ask me about best practice," says Vass. "We are a bit different in that we have around 35,000 open source desktops running on Sun, with 33,000 thin clients. Other CIOs are always fascinated by that, and the attendant cost-savings. As we would put it, we are flying our own flag."

Almost, but not quite. Sun is still in the process of moving some of its Windows laptops over to its own environment. On the applications side the primary ERP system is Oracle, with some Siebel and PeopleSoft in the global mix. Expect to see newly acquired SeeBeyond in there somewhere too."

But, as with most other CIOs, the first requirement from the top is to reduce cost. Vass has been working hard at doing that but at the same time he has not lost his focus on innovation. Going to thin clients is saving the company thousands per desktop -- and those savings are being applied in other places where they can impact the business." And it is not just about the hardware. There's also the time-saving factor with thin clients. Then there are the savings on people.

At present, Vass says, he and his team are working hard on moving all of Sun's applications over to a grid structure. "About seven or eight years ago Sun used to be made up of nine 'planets' and each planet had three geographies, and each geography had a CIO. Now the company is fully integrated but I am still undoing the mess that was created. I am going to blame Scott [McNealy] for that," he says with a grin. "At the time he felt we could have best of breed products by competing against ourselves. About two years ago I did an inventory and found we had ended up with 67 different order entry and order management systems. We used to have about 70 different extract and load tools, now all on a single operational data store under Informatic."

The eight data warehouses around the globe are also being centralized, with attendant savings in IT people -- down from around 250 to 25. "The trouble with having multiple instances of an application is that it's like asking a man with more than one watch what time it is. He never knows, because they are all showing different times. With one source of the truth you get a single answer. Having more just adds to the confusion."

Vass is not daunted by Sarbanes-Oxley requirements. What presents a greater challenge in a company of Sun's size is rights management, especially as the people change roles within the company. Reducing the number of systems also reduces that complexity, but implementing an identity and role management system plays a key role too.

Sun itself has been heading towards a service oriented architecture for a long time, says Vass. "SeeBeyond gives us the business integration to come with that."

Sun really sees itself as a systems company, with end to end products ranging from client devices that run Java, including cell phones, thin clients, high end workstations and open source desktops -- all the way to the whole back end, ERP systems and storage.

Part of Sun's strategy includes open-sourcing all of its software eventually. One of the benefits of that is amount of code contributed by developers, although the main benefit is in the testing they do.

"We aren't going to go into an ERP space, but if you look at everything that Microsoft or IBM has from a software suite perspective, we have the equivalent, all on open source and all able to run on multiple platforms, including Intel. As for Sparc chips, we have a team at Fujitsu to work on that, so we have doubled the RD on that platform. We'll continue to raise Sparc's performance with multicore technology."

In fact, Vass believes Sun's Sparc's chip is suited to multicore development. For the power-hungry CIO, Sun has 32-CPU multicore chips. "We believe Moore's Law can no longer be grown by just increasing cycles. The only way to go now is to have large numbers of cores on a chip. We'll probably have 64-core CPUs coming out soon."

Vass recalls how, as a CIO at the Pentagon, he had to deal with 3 million attacks on his network system every day, of which about 280 got through the first line of defense. We have had several denial of service attacks at Sun, but nothing like that."

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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