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Uncertain future for Sun Microsystems overshadows new products

With Sun Microsystems in limbo after IBM talks dissolved, the company faces user concern that has overshadowed its new products.

Now that acquisition talks with IBM have dissolved, Sun Microsystems is in limbo, facing user concern over its future. And that worry has overshadowed Sun Microsystems' newly released servers and technologies.

For more on Sun Microsystems:
IBM, Sun haggle on price, close in on deal

Reports of IBM, Sun buyout roil data center waters

VARs weigh possible IBM takeout of Sun

While the Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun is known for well-engineered products, some customers say they won't buy new Sun technologies until the company is on firmer ground.

And many IT pros argue that the confusion about Sun's future benefits rivals such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and, indeed, IBM.

To me, it looks like Sun is getting squeezed out.
John Burgholzer,
ownerInformation Overload

John Burgholzer, who owns the technology consultancy Information Overload, is happy to use vendors that are not in jeopardy: His technology of choice: Hewlett-Packard Co.'s blade servers running Microsoft Windows. "Right now, I'm glad I don't run Java or anything else from Sun," he said.

"To me, it looks like Sun is getting squeezed out; there are the big guys and the little guys, and the middle guys like Sun don't seem to last," Burgholzer said. "The playing field gets smaller and smaller. It is too bad, but that's the way it is."

Will confusion dim Sun's prospects?
When the question of whether Sun's uncertain status will affect customer investments was posed on an IT community website, a storage administrator said he would not invest in Sun products now. "A big purchase from them would make me nervous, at a minimum. I would rather go with IBM or HP to guarantee that [the company I buy from] will still be around in a year."

Others on the community board noted that even before the IBM talks went public, there were widespread doubts about Sun's future. Another systems and network administrator said he isn't worried about buying from Sun because this isn't the first time the 27-year-old company has been in trouble, yet it is still around and kicking out strong products.

"Why not buy from them? Their death has been predicted since 1996, and every time it was 'just around the corner, look at all the signs!' Sure, it looks closer this time than it did last time, but you could have said the same thing last time," he said. "In the meantime, anything you buy will probably have its support picked up by someone else, ensuring that your situation at the least does not dramatically worsen."

Illuminata Inc. analyst Gordon Haff said Sun's position is probably less of an issue for x86 server shops than it is for big SPARC customers.

"Someone running Linux on Sun x86 gear is probably not going to be too disrupted because there are a lot of close alternatives, but someone running Sparc/Solaris has to be concerned, because the assumption is that if Sun is bought by someone. And heck, maybe even if they aren't, we don't know how much investment into Sparc will continue," Haff said. "If Cisco or IBM or whoever does buy Sun, it is safe to assume there will be changes."

Since it appears that Sun is shopping itself around, it will be harder for the company to attract new customers, Haff said. "It is fair to say that convincing non-Sun customers to adopt Sun as a new vendor will be that much more difficult," he said.

Sun would not address questions about these concerns. A spokeswoman said customers continue to invest in its products despite "speculation and rumors. "More than 2 petaflops of the new Sun Blade servers have already been ordered."

Lisa Schoeller, a blade server product manager with Sun, added that since the company creates open systems, investments in their technology will be safe no matter what.

Speculations fly about Sun's future
Many Sun customers want to see the company regain its footing, but that may not be realistic, Haff said

"It takes a real optimist to think that they will get better, but most Sun customers just would like whatever particular technology from Sun to continue along without disruption," Haff said.

The storage administrator who said he wouldn't buy Sun hardware while the company's future is uncertain also said he isn't optimistic about Sun's ability to survive on its own.

"It almost seems unbelievable that they have fallen so far. I started my enterprise career working on [Sun Fire Enterprise] 15Ks and thought they were the coolest thing on the planet," he said. "It borders on sad, but they have made some poor decisions and I don't think anyone can save them now. I am guessing they will sell off the parts and massive layoffs will ensue."

If Sun wants to keep on keeping on, it will have to make major management changes, IT pros said. One Iowa-based AIX administrator wrote on an IT community board that Sun needs to revamp what he called its " whole bloody marketing team."

"They have some very innovative technologies that businesses are missing out on because the competition knows how to market their stuff better," he said. Some still hold out hope for another deal.

An administrator with the University of Nevada said on a message board he still thinks IBM or some other large Sun competitor will come along and "swallow them up whole." He lauded Sun innovations like ZFS, the Sparc T-series, Java and StorageTek work of late. With that résumé, he said, "Sun is worth a touch more than what IBM offered."

There are also rumors that Hewlett-Packard is interested though Illuminata's Haff doesn't think there's much in a deal to benefit HP. "They wouldn't gain anything on the x86 server side, and it seems to me the last thing HP would want is to deal with is yet another architectural migration, especially after RISC and Alpha," he said. "People who work at HP would go screaming from the room if that happened."

Haff added, "There is very little that HP would gain, nor would Dell, for that matter. Cisco is probably one to make some sense, though."

In the IT community, chatter has also emerged about why Cisco Systems would benefit from purchasing Sun. The same goes for Fujitsu, which is also a Sun system partner for Sparc systems.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

And check out blogs: Server Farming, Mainframe Propellerhead and Data Center Facilities Pro


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