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8/27/2004
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Riding Open Source To CIO Spot

Sun's new top I.T. exec sees a future fit between Linux and Solaris; also, why tech managers must wear three-cornered hats

Four years ago, when Bill Vass was one of 10 oversight CIOs at the Department of Defense reporting to the CIO-in-chief, he was an early implementer of Linux and advocated that a single, secure version be used throughout the agency's many branches. Now, as new CIO of high-end server vendor Sun Microsystems, Vass explains how his advocacy of open source and willingness to manage it might have led him to his latest CIO job.

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"The CIO works for everybody in the company," Vass says.
"The problem was, the DOD was so big--16 million people," Vass says, waving an 8 a.m. can of Mountain Dew in the air as he talks. "They were all downloading Linux everywhere. I was trying to create a DOD [version], one with the right default and security settings that could be supported across the department."

Before he succeeded, Vass left in 2000 to join Sun Microsystems' IT department as VP of corporate software services. Looking back, Vass learned that in his absence, multiple versions of Linux proliferated throughout the Defense Department, with the number of IT support problems marching in lockstep. "Now I think they're getting it under control."

As an advocate of Linux since 1995, Vass sees great prospects for open source from both the freely available and need-to-manage perspectives. "I'm very excited about Sun open-sourcing Solaris," he says. Once it does, Solaris' advanced features, such as mutithreading, which allows more than one instruction into a computer's processor at a time, will become available and may at some point be adopted into Linux. "I'm sure we'll see the two merge in lots of ways," Vass says.

Vass, 42, is a likely candidate to help manage such a merger. He publicly urges companies to adopt open systems and says his experience in the Pentagon taught him that proprietary systems fail once they've run up against their limits. With both Solaris and Java, Sun is a leading proponent of standards and supports numerous open-source projects. Vass reels off names of about a dozen before getting to his point: "Every time Sun is labeled 'proprietary,' it really burns my butt."

Vass, who took over the Sun CIO job last week, is part of president and chief operating officer Jonathan Schwartz's team of top execs. Schwartz, he says, is changing the "collegial" nature of Sun's past decision making, meaning Sun used to work through issues slowly, by committee, with lots of consultation. "Jonathan is extremely direct. He wants to make a decision and move on. If the decision is wrong, we'll collect the data and change it."

Vass says he has enjoyed that freewheeling style of operation since leaving the Pentagon and joining Sun. "It's not unusual to be exchanging E-mails with Jonathan at midnight," he says. "It's fun to have his level of energy."

The years since 2000 haven't been kind to Sun; the economic downturn contributed to a string of losing quarters. It's been Vass' job to cut IT costs, and he's done so. Desktop security costs, he says, have shrunk from $6 million to $4 million with the use of thin clients that can recognize employee-ID badges. The change heightens security levels and makes it less expensive to move offices, Vass says. Once a user plugs an ID badge into a thin client, he or she is recognized and can work at any location. Further cost reductions, Vass claims, have come from Sun's implementation of the Java Desktop System, eliminating Windows and substituting open-source StarOffice for Microsoft Office.

As CIO, Vass says he will make talented IT managers wear three-cornered hats. They will be rotated through management experience in software development, systems operations, and enterprise architecture, until they understand how one is related to the other. Vass obtained such experience himself in the Department of Defense, he says.

"The CIO works for everybody in the company," Vass says. "Without having that background, you won't be a successful CIO."

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