What now… Facing the Post-Sun Era

Posted on April 23, 2009

The initial shock of the Oracle deal is starting to fade. Without doubt there will be lingering regret, sadness, and quite rightly anger, for years to come. Some have referred to Sun as being as much a religion as a company, and for some of us that perhaps more true that we wish to admit. In that light, placations like “its business, not personal” is little consolation. We’ve lost something and an era has past into history, much like DEC, something is gone that we can’t get back.

In the wake, there is a fear for a great many of us. A lot of us have a lot of stock in Sun Microsystems… not shares of common or preferred, but emotional, personal, professional. How many of us are known as “the Sun guy”… a great many. What happens to that intangible vested stock? What do we do?

Sound over-dramatic? I’m sure that about half of you reading this are thinking “really, life goes on, get a grip” and the other half are now struggling with an uncertainty you previously took for granted. It is to the latter that I speak.

Almost everyone seems to agree that given the choice between IBM and Oracle, the latter is better. I admit I liked IBM as a prospect only because I think that the cultures of Sun and IBM are so different that the two couldn’t integrate. Rather, Sun would be like a rebel alliance deep within the deathstar. Some element of the counter-culture would survive. But Oracle… they fit almost too well, I can see the two integrating and it will force Sun’s products back into that old enterprise mentality.

I think whats really changed at Sun in the last 10 years is a shift in the definition of “enterprise”. It used to be those with the cash for big SPARC servers, Solaris licenses, and a passion for support contracts. The shift was for us to counter Linux by saying “everything is (or can be) enterprise”! Solaris is the premier enterprise grade operating system, and you can put it on your E10K, or your X4200, or your Supermicro, or your Asus EEE. DTrace belongs on your $500,000 server and your MacBook.

Whats the underlying problem Sun has been unwilling to face? I think its that Sun is too many things to too many people. We all have solutions for how to “fix Sun”… but all of our solutions are different. Because we all see Sun differently. My brother-in-law is one of the industries premier J2ME developers; we’re on opposite parts of the same company, he could care less about the systems group, and I believe that Sun is a systems company and should focus there. As I’ve said many times in the past, Sun is a house divided. And for all the attempts and efforts, producing a real end-to-end offering hasn’t bore enough fruit.

I think Oracle is going to do what Sun’s management has been too afraid to do… their going to make the tough choices and unify the products. Its going to be painful and ugly… but they may finally align all the cogs and wheels to provide aligned solutions. They’ve said as much in the initial releases and I believe it thoroughly.

People keep speculating on what will survive and what will be chomped. Will Oracle kill X86? Or will they dump OpenSolaris? Or will they…. Frankly, I doubt non-overlapping products have any concern. Some of the middleware will be integrated and melt into the mix, but I think thats the extent. Rather, I expect Oracle to do a lot of pruning. Just as with gardening, you need to trim away less productive stems to channel maximum resource into those with the most promise. Therefore I think we’ll see fewer offerings, but much stronger ones.

For those of us with a vested interest in Sun, I think this is a time to shine. The change will be potentially radical, and that provides an opportunity for first-mover advantage. There are going to be a lot of questions, a lot of concerns, a lot of uncertainty, and people with answers and solutions stand to gain. Consulting should be lucrative. Bloggers and writers, and those who are ready to help on mailing lists and within organizations can prosper.

The key is to pick ourselves up, individual and collectively, and be ready to embrace the change. Not because we want to, but because thats the reality of it.

If Oracle does what it seeks to do, there should more opportunity for skilled Solaris admins and developers than we’ve seen in several years. All that SPARC knowledge you shelved may need a refresher. And if Oracle can truly provide that end-to-end experience, there will be a tremendous need for engineers that not only understand UNIX or even Solaris, but understand DTrace and ZFS and ILOM and LDOMs and xVM and Crossbow and Zones and SPARC and Cluster and on and on. The value will come from those individuals who not just understand a given Sun technology but rather a complete integrated stack view.

Oracle’s going to follow up product offerings with support and consulting… but we all know that only goes so far, the rest of us will need to go the distance.

So my advice is nothing extraordinary, but rather the obvious, as an encouragement. Soon all your skills may be required of you. We all have a head start. If Oracle puts its weight behind Solaris and even SPARC it may dislodge some of the inroads Linux has made and put Solaris back on top in the enterprises of the world. We must be ready, we must be watchful, and we must seize opportunity as it arises.

DEC went down a road of destruction. We can be thankful we’ve been spared a similar fate, which may well have been with IBM. As sysadmins, developers, enthusiasts, employees, partners… as a community… we’ve got to dust ourselves off and look ahead and look around us for all the possibilities that present themselves.

I’ll leave you with this thought:

A wise and dear friend of mine today asked me: “Where does your allegiance lie: with Sun or with Solaris?” That’s a question each of us has to re-evaluate very carefully.