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2/12/2004
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Sun's Returning Co-Founder Talks About His New Role

Andy Bechtolsheim hopes to accelerate Sun's efforts in the high-volume systems market using AMD's Opteron chip.

Sun Microsystems on Tuesday acquired startup Kealia Inc., bringing Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim back to the Silicon Valley company he co-founded with Scott McNealy, Bill Joy, and Vinod Khosla in 1982.

Bechtolsheim, 48, returns to Sun as a senior VP and chief architect and will work on designing systems that use Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s Opteron chip, a new technology for Sun. Bechtolsheim left Sun in 1995 to found Granite Systems, later bought by Cisco Systems. He was also an early investor in Google.

InformationWeek senior writer Aaron Ricadela spoke with Bechtolsheim this week about Kealia and his upcoming work at Sun.

InformationWeek: You're taking on a job as chief architect for volume systems at Sun. What will that work entail, and what are your goals?

Bechtolsheim: We hope to bring to Sun an acceleration of its expansion beyond Sparc into Opteron, and into all things Linux. This [Sparc] market has been an unbelievable success for Sun. However, it is not the entire market--there's also x86. It's definitely the Opteron angle that got us involved here.

InformationWeek: How many people worked at Kealia, and what were you working on?

Bechtolsheim: I founded that company in 2001, even before Opteron came out. We spent a year-plus evaluating potential designs. It's a design company; we never shipped a product but had prototypes of Opteron systems.

The Sun thing happened fairly quickly, but the work at Kealia had been going on for several years. We were going to focus on universities and research institutions. But it's really hard for startups to get to major market share. Once Sun came into the market, it became clear that I didn't want to compete with my own former company.

Kealia had 59 employees, including me, all engineers. The only investor was myself. It was a stealth company--the company never made any press releases or announcements. My philosophy is not to talk about products until they're shipped. Sun's a little different.

We'd been working on horizontally scalable systems. On day one, the company worked on media servers, which is a scalable kind of architecture. Everybody will come to Sun; that's the engineering team. So the deal was a function of Sun announcing they'd go in the Opteron direction.

InformationWeek: So how was Kealia's technology different from that of other computer companies that have brought products to market using Opteron chips?

Bechtolsheim: We can't say--the technology will be appearing when the products come to market. Sun has only said it will announce something in the next few quarters.

What I can say is that everything from CPU performance to I/O to networking is being upgraded a lot faster--we'll update these systems every six to nine months.

And the volume opportunity is the interesting angle. The secret to life here is efficiency. We're trying to do a whole lineup of machines here in a way that enables customers to get investment protection and upgrades. It's a whole new design style to make life more efficient in the computer business. Sun's servers have price points from a few thousand to couple of hundred thousand dollars. Not that Sun hasn't tried this in the past, but CPU upgradability is very important, of course. With PCI Express, 10-Gigabit Ethernet, and other technologies coming, there are many things customers have a rightful expectation these systems will support.

InformationWeek: What computing jobs will customers want to buy Sparc systems for then, versus x86-based computers?

Bechtolsheim: Sun dominated with technical workstations in the '90s. More recently, many customers have looked at Linux on x86 as their preferred solution in traditional engineering scientific markets. This is a market where I believe Sun will be very successful with Opteron, but more likely on the Linux front. You could call this a technical early-adopter market.

But in traditional business markets--financial services, airlines, insurance--those are not the kinds of customers that want to buy the latest version of Linux that's changing every six months. Those are the companies that really want stability, and Solaris does very well there. With Opteron, for the same cost of hardware, you can run Linux free with no support, pay for Red Hat Linux, or pay for Windows. What will really be apparent very shortly is that Windows will be the most expensive, supported Red Hat Linux will fall in the middle, and Solaris will be the lowest cost.

InformationWeek: There's a bigger question about Sun, though, and that's as companies increasingly buy Intel, Windows, and Linux for their computing work, did Sun bet on the wrong horse with RISC and Unix?

Bechtolsheim: Solaris on Sparc is a $100 billion installed-base market of people still using it--it's the single-most-successful architecture in history. The standard is actually Sparc-Solaris. IDC and others get this wrong by believing the Intel marketing. But Itanium isn't going anywhere fast as far as I can tell.

Opteron also lets Sun sell an industry-standard environment on x86. If there's any criticism of Sun, it's that its been too religiously focused on Sparc-Solaris. And now we have Linux and Opteron, and it increases the market opportunity.

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