Sun Microsystems reunion: The legacy continues

Four-plus years after Oracle's takeover, Sun's former execs and employees reflect on company's accomplishments

It has been more than four years since once high-flying systems and software vendor Sun Microsystems met its official demise. The company's rich technology legacy, however, lives on. About 750 former employees, including Sun co-founders Vinod Khosla and Andy Bechtolsheim, gathered at a reunion this past weekend in the parking lot of Sun's old office buildings in Silicon Valley to celebrate the company's achievements.

Formed in 1982 and acquired by Oracle in early 2010, Sun was the birthplace of technologies such as the Java enterprise platform and language, which is still in great demand 19 years after its inception, and Network File System (NFS), for accessing files over a network. Sun was famous for pushing Unix and open standards computing amid a sea of proprietary systems, taking on established giants IBM, HP, and even Microsoft. The company's roster featured an all-star team of technologists, including co-founder and Unix guru Bill Joy, Java inventor James Gosling, and XML co-inventor Tim Bray.

While longtime CEO Scott McNealy, Joy, and Sun's last CEO Jonathan Schwartz were not in attendance, Khosla, Bechtolsheim, and other Sun officials waxed sentimental about the company's good old days. Listing Sun's most important achievements, Khosla, now a venture capitalist, cites its emphasis on distributed computing and NFS.

"When we went to market, we made networking standard on every Sun [computer]," Khosla said. DES encryption was included "because I couldn't imagine how you could do networking without encryption," he said. NFS, meanwhile, arose out of a distributed computing vision, Khosla said. "It was one of the first open source projects, really."

When asked if Java was Sun's top achievement, Gosling instead echoed Khosla's sentiments: "The Sun tag line, 'The Network is the Computer' -- people keep forgetting that Sun was the first company that took networking seriously." But having Java developers in so much demand these days is "pretty cool," said Gosling, who is chief software architect at Liquid Robotics, which builds software for robots that roam the ocean. "Hiring Java developers is an expensive proposition, and I'm certainly trying to hire some right now."

Bechtolsheim, pondering whether Sun might have been better off switching its product lines to Intel and Linux, recalled that Sparc chips outperformed Intel chips throughout the 1990s, while Linux had been a hobby project. "Unfortunately, then, in the 2000 era, after the dot-com crash, both Intel and AMD ultimately made faster CPUs and Linux was a lot more mature and customers started switching over to a Linux-Intel combination," said Bechtolsheim, who is now chairman of cloud networking vendor Arista Networks. At that point, it was very difficult for Sun to adjust, he said. But both Solaris and Sparc hardware continue to be developed at Oracle.

As far as how Oracle has handled Sun technologies since the acquisition, Khosla said he had not paid much attention to it, other than tracking the lawsuit between Oracle and Google over the use of Java in the Android mobile platform. "I'm sure [the case] will continue for a while."

Gosling reiterated his contentions that Oracle has been OK for Java but not for Solaris. "Oddly enough, they've done a way better job with Java than I've ever expected," Gosling said. But Oracle messed up on Solaris, pricing it too high, he said.

Khosla, though, had a pessimistic prognosis for the Apache Hadoop distributed computing platform, labeling it an outdated batch processing system. "Having a batch process this day and age is silly. I always think of it as going back to pre-Sun days."

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