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Sun's Future and Cloud Computing

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Sun's recent layoffs (which are said to be affecting people working on OpenJDK, the JCP, J2SE, and desktop Java), and also Sun's recent acquisition of cloud infrastructure vendor Q-Layer, keeps alive the question of how Sun will redefine its strategic direction and choose which of its many technology possibilities it will focus upon.   Sun is inextricably linked to the Java community and its recent financial, downsizing, and stock performance problems have been a cause for concern. Last fall, Tim Bray opened a conversation about the Sun's future direction with his post "What Should Sun Do?" Others, notably Ian Skerrett, Stephen O'Grady of Redmonk, Dave Johnson of BloggingRoller and Terrence Barr joined in.

Everyone agreed that Sun has a large and exciting technology portfolio - too large for it to maintain and exploit given its current situation. Everyone agrees that Sun would benefit by focusing on some subset of that portfolio. But which subset?

Tim would have Sun "adopt a laser focus on building a Sun Web Suite and becomming the the Web application deployment platform of choice." This focus would have Sun retain its hardware, OS, HotSpot JVM, and server side technologies (e.g. GlassFish and MySQL) and shed client side technologies (e.g. JavaFX) where he believes Sun cannot compete, NetBeans, and similar non-Web focused technologies. Tim would also have Sun terminate its role as "Steward of Java" by releasing the JCP in the same way that IBM released Eclipse.

Terrence Barr disagreed with most of Tim's recommendations, especially the abandonment of client side technologies. Terrence believes that the client side is what will keep Sun visible and drive traffic to its other, stronger with greater revenue generation potential, technologies.

Both Ian Skerrett and Stephen O'Grady argue for reform in Sun's marketing and its internal culture - emphasizing the need to do a better job at being a business. Instead of letting innovation, technology, and engineering culture drive the company almost completely; figure out how to do a better job at being a business, ala IBM when it faced similar problems a decade ago.

Tim and Stephen O'Grady raised the issue of Sun's participation in cloud computing, an area that is not a current Sun technological stronghold - although they did establish a cloud computing unit last year. Tim first notes some unknowns about cloud computing

  • "Will it operate at the level of virtual hardware, like Amazon's AWS, or at Platform as a Service, like Google App engine (and, de facto, much of the PHP community)?
  • Will buyers accept a certain amount of lock-in, or will they insist on zero barriers to exit?
  • Will those who deploy enterprise applications be willing to let their data offsite and into the cloud? If so, what kinds of privacy guarantees will they require?
  • Will those who deploy enterprise applications want to build internal cloud-flavored infrastructure?"

Despite these unkwnowns, Tim concludes:

"Here's something we do know: The business arguments for cloud computing look overwhelmingly attractive. I'm not convinced that Sun can succeed as a large-scale supplier of cloud services, and I'm not even convinced that we need to. I am convinced that we have to go ahead and build some Cloud infrastructure anyhow and operate it and make it pay for itself, so that when the ecosystem does find its shape, we'll understand it and be positioned to sell the Web Suite into it."

Stephen O'Grady adds to Tim's arguments by suggesting that Sun must be a player in this space. Given the nature of the current cloud vendors (Google, Amazon, Microsoft) who are committed to whitebox, commodity, hardware options, Sun cannot even count on being a supplier of choice in this market. The only way for Sun to play at all is to provide the cloud services on its own platforms.

Sun's acquisition of Q-Layer and its NephOS software gives it some cloud technology (and suggests an answer to Tim's question about whether it will operate as virtual hardware) but the acquisition alone does not yet hint at a cloud strategy or direction. Sun's VP of Marketing for its cloud computing unit, Carlos Soto, noted that  "Sun was not in position to announce new cloud computing products on the first day of the acquisition but announcements will follow soon."

Except in the area of Cloud Computing, no one cited technlogies past the current product line of Sun to see what might be in its research and development pipeline. For example, Sun's Lively Kernel might have the potential to redefine Sun's client side technology offerings and allow them to penetrate markets where they currently have no presence.

What would you have Sun do?

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