Sun CTO posits new computing era

The world of computing is currently undergoing another in a series of decade-long phase changes, according to Sun Microsystems Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadopoulos, and the new era of the "network scaled computer" will see Sun bringing new approaches to users' cost-of-ownership problems and leveraging its investment in small, highly dense microprocessor technologies.

Working a white-board with a teacher's enthusiasm, Papadopoulos -- currently a part-time visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as a Sun senior vice president -- sketched out for a group of journalists in the Boston area last week a historical perspective on the last four decades of computing. Papadopoulos consigns the "64-bit biggies" of current microprocessor architectures -- Intel Corp.'s Itanium, IBM Corp.'s Power4, and even Sun's own Sparc -- to a legacy approach appropriate for the 1990's computing model of symmetric multiprocessing servers. Rather than these engines, he suggested, the volume component of the current era will be chips with multiple small, high-density microprocessors, that offer higher throughput and are more I/O centric.

Sun already has a stake in this new processing ground, with its July acquisition of Afara Websystems Inc. which had been working on Sparc-compatible chips that focused on IP (Internet protocol) processing. Papadopoulos indicated that fruits of the Afara work will in the future be found at the heart of the network scaled computer model, with the 64-bit processors built into servers and storage components. A major design goal of these processors will be minimal power consumption, or maximizing "MIPS (million instructions per section) per watt," he said.

Another technology arena that Papadopoulos characterized as "a very interesting space" is that of ad hoc device networks. Here again, Sun has invested in a startup, he said: Connecterra Inc. of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Connecterra professes on its company Web site (www.connecterra.com) to be engaged in creating the "Internet of devices," developing architecture, standards, and software products for IP telemetry and control. Its platform will connect IT infrastructure to devices such as household appliances, electronic equipment, factory machines, gas pumps, office equipment, thermostats, or any device that could contain electronic components.

Connecterra has another strong link to Sun: the startup's senior vice president of products and strategy is Dave Douglas, who was most recently a Sun VP with responsibility for its overall system management strategy and direction, for the core Solaris and server management engineering teams.

Papadopoulos, who is on Connecterra's technical advisory board, said that he sees the next challenge for software developers as writing device applications for a network that extends a company's awareness of what happens to its products well beyond the walls of its enterprise. Companies that in his view already understand the potential of this network of devices include not only those in the transportation business but firms like Johnson Controls, and car manufacturers who see the opportunity for service delivery in automotive telematics.

Viewing the increasingly complex, networked computing environment from an IT manager's perspective, Papadopoulos acknowledged the high cost of ownership confronting user companies and proposed that Sun will solve the problem with technology, not people. With as much as 80 percent of a typical IT budget spent on people operating a company's IT infrastructure, vendors are faced with a choice of solutions to offer users, he said. "You can go after this by going after services," Papadapoulos said, referring to IBM's recent decision to acquire services provider PwC Consulting. Or, a company can decide "I'm going to engineer that out," he said. Sun's focus will be on the latter, and on technologies that forward data center automation, according to Papadopoulos.

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