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Sun to offer utility pricing for desktops

Thin-client Sun Ray product hasn't taken off yet, but Sun hopes subscription pricing will boost its popularity.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
SAN JOSE, Calif.--Sun Microsystems will add a new element to its utility computing plan, letting customers rent out access to Sun Ray thin clients for desktop computing tasks.

The Sun Ray products--terminals that rely on central servers for computing horsepower--haven't made much headway against their primary competitors: PCs running Windows or, less often, Linux. But Sun keeps plugging away at the technology, and now plans to bring its novel pricing approach to the Sun Rays in the next three to six months, Sun President Jonathan Schwartz said at a Solaris 10 announcement event here.

Sun foresees a time when most people tap into a global pool of computing power rather than operate computing infrastructure on their own (a concept called utility computing because the pay-per-use model resembles how utilities such as electricity or natural gas operate).

"Stay tuned for Sun Ray desktops delivered as a monthly subscription," Chief Executive Scott McNealy said. "We're bringing utility computing (to) reality."

We view the one retail audience as developers and students. Everything else is wholesale.
--Sun President Jonathan Schwartz

Sun Rays are little more than a screen, keyboard, mouse and digital identity card slot. All the computing heavy lifting is left to a server running either Sun's Solaris operating system or Linux.

Thin clients are more secure and less expensive to operate than conventional PCs, Sun argues. Chief Information Officer Bill Vass said he recently upgraded 30,000 Sun desktops in three days at a cost of $60,000.

Sun has begun selling access to its own low-end servers used for mathematical calculations, letting customers use them for $1 per processor per hour. Also on Monday, Sun announced that Telus will resell that service, starting with customers in finance and oil and gas research.

In the long run, Sun wants to be a wholesaler that provides equipment to business partners that handle utility computing sales at the retail level. That strategy applies to Sun Rays, Schwartz said in an interview. "We view the one retail audience as developers and students," Schwartz said. "Everything else is wholesale."

Herb Hinstorff, director of desktop solutions marketing, sees Sun Ray services as appealing in three areas: companies running simple Web-based applications; companies with employees working from home offices; and real estate companies that might want to offer Sun Rays when renting out temporary office space.

Sun Ray isn't the only work at Sun involving desktops--thin or otherwise. The company also sells its Java Desktop System, a version of Linux and higher-level software that runs on PCs, and StarOffice, a competitor to Microsoft Office based on the open-source OpenOffice project.

The next edition of StarOffice, version 8, is scheduled to be released in the second quarter of 2005, said Fred Kohout, who took over Sun's desktop business about two weeks ago.

Sun on Monday announced that the English city of Bristol purchased StarOffice 7 for use by 5,000 of its employees. However, 1,800 desktop computers in schools and the city's education service will continue to use Microsoft Office because of discounted educational-customer pricing.