Zander Reflects on Sun, Solaris, Linux

Sun COO and President Ed Zander shares his thoughts about his reasons for leaving the firm, the recent executive management shuffles and Sun's strategies.

Sun Microsystems Inc.s Chief Operating Officer and President Ed Zander last week oversaw the release of the Solaris 9 operating system—his last major product launch before he leaves the company in July. Zander took time out at Suns Menlo Park, Calif., offices to share his thoughts with eWEEK Senior Editor Peter Galli about his reasons for leaving the firm, the recent executive management shuffles, as well as Suns strategies.

eWEEK: There has been a lot of talk about exactly what Suns strategy is and how Solaris fits into this at both the high and low ends. What is the companys strategy?

Zander: It appears the hardest thing to understand is when the strategy stays the same. Unlike some of our competitors, ours has stayed the same—that is to be the very best at delivering products and services and technology for network computing and to build the most scalable, most reliable, most robust hardware, software and technology-based products. That stays the same. Solaris is the cornerstone of our strategy. People still view us as this hardware/server company, yet two-thirds of our engineers and research and development is dedicated to software.

If you look at the history of the company, it was 1982 when we introduced Unix and open systems, it was 1992 when we commercialized Unix and released the first version of Solaris, and here we are 10 years later doing it all again by combining Web services with an operating system platform. All of this translates into one of the most prolific, leading software companies around. But yet weve still got this hardware label.

eWEEK: How would you describe Sun as a company?

Zander: We say it best in our name, Sun Microsystems. Its a systems company. With Microsoft [Corp.] and Intel [Corp.] they tried to divide that world into two, but the reason they havent succeeded in building complex, scalable systems for the enterprise is because of that. We dont just think about an operating system or a piece of hardware, we think about how you take directories and application servers and operating systems and server architectures and storage and build mission-critical systems. Were one of the last true great system companies, and customers benefit from the standards-based integration we offer and the reliability, scalability and scalability focus we have.

eWEEK: Suns Linux strategy has been criticized as "too little too late" by some customers and partners, who say that you are offering nothing they cant get elsewhere. How do you respond?

Zander: Too little too late for Linux, and yet Linux has achieved no market share in the industry. The whole Linux market is a couple of hundred million dollars. I find it really amazing as were in the first chapter of Linux, if it ever has a full book, and it remains to be seen whether Linux will scale into the mission-critical enterprise area. I think Linux is a great operating system at the expense of Windows NT. I think most of the wins are replacements for NT systems [that are] full of viruses, that need reboots, cost too much and are too hard to administer.

Were hot about Linux, we think its a great low-end play in the edge computing market, and the product we are bringing out this summer will catapult us into the lead. Were going to take Linux and add our Sun ONE capability and things like app services, directories and firewalls, and caching capability and bring it into the whole Sun environment with our developers. But make no doubt about it, 99 percent of our R&D is going to be Solaris because its about mission-critical, scalable operating environments. Were not going to go backward and invest all in Linux.

eWEEK: Some say youre focusing on Linux at the low end at the expense of Solaris on the Intel architecture. How do you see this?

Zander: That wasnt our call. Intel and some of the big PC companies decided they didnt want to support it, and people wanted to have Linux on Intel. Solaris Intel is there. If Intel wants it tomorrow they can call us up and well be glad to give it to them and commercialize it. I did this deal 10 years ago, and for nine-and-a-half years nobody ever wrote about it. Then we decide were not going to offer it anymore, and everybody writes about it. This is like … Coke Classic, lets bring it back. Where was that vocal group in the community that now wants it for nine years, 11 months and 27 days?

Were not hard on this thing. The bits are there for Solaris on Intel because its one source code. It has to be recompiled, the drivers have to be written, and it has to be sold. If the user community wants to form a company or get Intel, Dell, Compaq , IBM or [Hewlett-Packard Co.] involved, they can call me, and well do it. We love the product. We think its a great product, but we just dont sell general-purpose Intel machines.

eWEEK: Some customers are unhappy about the pricing model for StarOffice, saying you should have continued to provide it for free. Do you think charging for it was the right strategy?

Zander: It is free. If you want a free version today you go to and pull it off the Web like Linux for free. All we did was make you pay for the distribution, like you do with Linux. You get documentation, support, release engineering and localization. What our big customers wanted was support and documentation, all of which cost money.

eWEEK: There have been a lot of executive management shuffles and departures announced recently, yours included. How does this affect the company, and do you think youre leaving it in good shape?

Zander: Youll have to ask my peers if Im leaving the company in good shape. Time will tell. I like to pride myself as a good manager, and the team is in shape to continue where I left off. I worked real hard on that for five years as I knew this day was going to come. When you take a job like this, it has a finite time, and I believe the incoming team is as strong as the team in place today. People make too much of the old team, and Ive trained those coming in to think and act like they are COOs and theyll do it.

Nobody likes change, and its unfortunate that we had a few at the same time and you always wonder if you should have spread them out or done things differently. But our fiscal year starts on July 1, and we feel we have the company back on the road to profitability and back on the road. Some of the guys wanted to retire and spend time on the road, and some of us wanted just to move on and think about whats next in our career. I think well be in good shape.

eWEEK: In 1999 when Lew Platt was in charge of HP, you were apparently approached for the CEO job now held by Carly Fiorina. Is that true?

Zander: I cant comment on that. There were a lot of people contacted about that job; a lot of people in Silicon Valley were approached.

eWEEK: How about the talk that you essentially wanted to be the CEO at Sun and the reason youre leaving is that the opportunity wasnt presented to you?

Zander: I dont think its that black and white. These jobs are pretty much for a finite time. After three or four years of doing a job you hope to get more challenged. And when youre COO and president theres only one other job you can get, so in some respects its a little bit of what youre saying. I knew Scott [McNealy] was committed to Sun for a long time and that it probably wasnt ever going to happen, so I factored that in over the years. When I thought Id done enough at Sun and done the things I wanted to do, it was a natural thing as this was the last job unless Scott got hit by a truck, and he didnt intend to get hit by a truck, so youve got to move on.

eWEEK: Are you looking to be CEO of a company going forward?

Zander: I really dont know. Im really busy this summer and into the fall with the transition and helping Scott with strategic stuff. And, after 30 years, maybe Ill take a couple of months off. I really have to sit down and think about it. Youve got to let yourself decompress and think about if you want to do all this again.

eWEEK: Youve already joined the board of an integrated business intelligence company called Netezza [Corp.]. Why that company as a first move?

Zander: Im on several other boards, and I rotate on and off of boards as a way to gain insight into technology and balance the way you see things. I agreed to do this verbally some time ago but didnt want to announce it as I wanted to get my departure from Sun out of the way first. Netezza is based in Boston and only when the Boston Red Sox win the World Series, Ill move back to Boston. And as they havent done so in 90 years, its a pretty safe bet. Im absolutely staying in California for now.