Can Sun rise to the cloud-computing challenge?

As Sun proclaims that it's "gonna do somethin'," the cloud community is reminded of the incredible DNA of this engineering icon--and challenges it faces in executing.

James Urquhart
James Urquhart is a field technologist with almost 20 years of experience in distributed-systems development and deployment, focusing on service-oriented architectures, cloud computing, and virtualization. James is a market strategist for cloud computing at Cisco Systems and an adviser to EnStratus, though the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
James Urquhart
4 min read

As a former employee of Sun Microsystems, I've been fascinated for some time about what the cloud can do for its troubled fortunes. The company has amazing cloud DNA, in terms of technology and talent.

Sun is a company of engineers founded by engineers to engineer for engineers. They've got the technology chops to do something great here, as can be evidenced by some of the interesting things to come out of Sun Labs in the last year or two.

Sun Microsystems image

In the last few weeks, Sun finally took direct action for the cloud, and it reorganized its software division to take the cloud challenge head-on. So it was with great anticipation that I listened on Tuesday to a discussion between Dave Douglas and Lew Tucker about Sun's interpretation of the cloud market, and Sun's potential place in it. (The slides are also available.)

This was more of a "placeholder" presentation--certainly not a major announcement--but Douglas and Tucker laid out a foundation of concepts, and then outlined how Sun can work to address the opportunities this market creates.

This, of course, is a little disappointing, though completely understandable. Disappointing because we are seeing the dawn of cloud-computing giants, some created from the elegant artistry of the entrepreneurial engine, some crafted by the brute force from the clay of existing IT giants.

Microsoft reinvented itself in a single event. So did Salesforce.com. There are dozens of start-ups in the space--maybe more, depending on how you define it. So for Sun to simply say, "hold on, we're working on it"--in a simple Web event, for that matter--risks being a bit boring.

It is an understandable position to take at this time, however, considering that the pressure must be on to say something without having all of the details worked out. How do customers approach Sun? As a cloud provider (ala the recently suspended Network.com)? As a systems provider? As a cloud infrastructure provider? This presentation seemed targeted at answering that minimal question for customers, the press, and the general market.

And, such as it was, it did OK. On the surface, it was a simple, if not a little bit basic, cloud presentation with some acknowledgment of ecosystems to be tended, and a little bit of showing off that DNA I spoke of early, especially the high-quality people involved. (The answer to those questions, by the way, seems to be that Sun will be a cloud infrastructure provider--both public and private--first, and look at cloud services as an option in the future.) I would have dismissed it, if it wasn't for something that they spoke of that very few cloud infrastructure providers discuss: developers.

Drawing on developers
Again, Sun has a very engineering-focused culture, and its embracing of developers is legendary, from Java and its related properties to NetBeans to its partner ecosystems for everything from OpenSSO to Glassfish to OpenSolaris.

I spent several years at Sun working on cultivating this relationship, and rocky as it has become at times, Sun has one of the most loyal developer communities under the...well, sun. The flip side, however, is that Sun's reputation for monetizing that community is decidedly mixed, to say the least.

Lew made it clear that Sun is going to rely on its extended developer community to enhance and extend whatever its cloud platform may be to create new and innovative value for end customers. No details, mind you.

The argument is elegant; they mentioned that the widely varying needs of infrastructure architecture in the enterprise and higher-scaling Web properties will lead to there being many clouds from which to choose. Sun wants to be the provider to as many clouds as possible, and it is betting that engaging developers in whatever they are doing, as well as pursuing an open standards-based approach, will give them an advantage over all the folks that are targeting specific "siloed" infrastructure architectures.

Lew also appeared on Overcast this week with Geva Perry and myself, and he talked a little more about that.

In the podcast, he noted that Sun is going to draw upon the various communities of developers with whom it works. As with any disruptive change, cloud computing is going to change the way developers look at the work they are doing, stirring braincells, and likely creating amazing new, innovative ideas. Sun wants to provide the tools to allow developers to realize those ideas.

So, in the end, we have to wait and see what Sun has in store for us. However, if I'm an enterprise looking to build a private cloud, a developer looking for ways to leverage this disruption, or a fan of cloud computing interested in what some of the best and brightest engineers and computer scientists can come up with in this space, I am definitely staying tuned.