McNealy: Complexity Under Attack

Sun CEO Scott McNealy says both Sun and Microsoft are attacking the problem of complexity: The difference? Their approach to integrating their products.

LAS VEGAS—Appearing before a Comdex keynote audience that had heard from Microsoft Corp.s Bill Gatesthe night before, Sun Microsystems Inc. Chairman and CEO Scott McNealy was frank about Microsofts strengths. "I give them credit," he said. "Theyre trying to solve the problem with R&D, as we are—not by darkening the skies with IBM Global Services staff until either your system works or you run out of money, whichever comes first."

Both Microsoft and Sun, said McNealy, are attacking the problem of complexity rather than making that complexity the foundation of their business. Where they differ, said McNealy, is in their approach to integrating their product offerings.

When it comes to basic IT strategy, "there are only three basic choices left," said McNealy, adding that "the competitive analysis section of my talk gets shorter every year. Write that down, I do competitive analysis—not that other word," presumably referring to the label of "Microsoft bashing" that has often been applied to past McNealy speeches.

McNealy characterized Microsofts strategy as "welded together—and welded shut. You cant get best of breed, you cant mix and match." In his only direct reference to the Microsoft antitrust case, McNealy noted that "under oath, Microsoft told the government that if you took their browser out of their operating system, youd have to take the whole thing off the market." An application shouldnt be able to do that to an operating system, he said. In contrast, he characterized Suns offerings as "integratable," saying, "You can take out any piece you dont like and put someone elses in, and it still works."

McNealy pointed to Suns own application of its approach to its own operations, saying, "The same group that works for me is available to you." He reported the companys progress in consolidating servers, saying, "We just last quarter took 109 instances of an app down to one Oracle instance, for our international sales site, and we save $12 million annually. Weve gotten our server count down by 30 percent, during regular maintenance with no interruption to regular service, and were getting a four-month payback."

The key to containing IT costs, McNealy asserted, is in raising the level of the platform to which enterprise applications are written. "People ask me, Whats your Linux strategy? Thats like asking an automobile maker, Whats your overhead camshaft strategy?" he argued, adding, "You should not be writing to Linux, or to Windows, or to Solaris. You should be writing to a higher level Java, XML, SunOne environment, so you can write Web services once, and run them anywhere, if you want to save your company money instead of giving it away."

McNealy was quick to add that he believes that Sun offers a complete solution. "Were spending $2 billion a year making our pieces fit well together, and the programming interfaces are all open and standard: We assemble the puzzle for you in our factory so you dont have to do that. Well assemble, test and certify, configure, and ship to you a fully assembled puzzle. You can add on to the edges, or replace components—but I dont recommend it unless youre spending $1.8 billion on R&D for putting the pieces together." By contrast, he said, IBMs services-based strategy amounts to "Dont try to assemble this puzzle at home."

Before the end of the fiscal year next June, McNealy declared a goal of delivering a complete Sun Web services platform so that "when you turn on Solaris on SPARC, or X86, or even Sun Linux on X86, I want you to see all that software there—not just listed in columns, but there, it just works, you can use it forever. It will all work, you wont have to assemble it.

"Ill share a secret," he added. "Were not sure that all of Suns software, all on one server, will all work together, so were testing it. What a great diagnostic."

What enterprise developers must do, said McNealy, is escape the combined traps of complexity and cost that come with low-level development. "Application Binary Interfaces are so last millennium," he said. "Get over it. Its a court-martial offense if you write to anything other than that high layer—theres nothing that enterprises need to do, should do, that they cant do at that level."

McNealys trademark grin and wisecracking attitude were notably absent from his talk; his opening Top Ten list, a regular feature of his speeches, was edged with irony about the overall industry doldrums, not laced with insults against his competitors in general or Microsoft in particular.

Overall, though, he projected confidence in Suns situation and prospects, saying, "Weve been generating cash for about 32 straight quarters: Theres nothing wrong with the economy when youre generating cash."