If you want to understand why Sun Microsystems is still in business, you only need to talk to Executive Vice President and CTO Greg Papadopoulos. In the 1970s, he moved from Hewlett-Packard to Honeywell to engineer a more serious kind of machine: flight control systems for Boeing commercial jetliners. That's when Papadopoulos remembers becoming concerned with how well computers work.
In the 1980s, Papadopoulos worked his way from a research fellowship to a faculty position at MIT. He then took a leave of absence to co-found videoconferencing pioneer PictureTel and become Chief Architect at Thinking Machines. In 1994 when Sun bought Thinking Machines, Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim made him an offer he couldn't refuse, Papadopoulos recalls: "Take care of Sun's server side, and I'll leave you alone."
These days, Papadopoulos has Sun thinking about systems instead of computers. If we could network every device that can think or remember or sense or call out its name, it would create a system with the power to change society.
“Programmers realize that things just got 1,000 times harder because an application can have 1,000 processors that it has to get to work together,” Papadopoulos says.
When every device that can connect is connected to the network, the network’s scope can rise to millions of nodes — the magnitude and complexity of such a network is daunting enough to be considered science fiction. Not to Papadopoulos, who's determined to make Sun the company that makes the system work.
"Network computing has been a consistent vision throughout Sun's history," Papadopoulos explains. "The work that I’m doing on N1is similar to what I did in the past with J2EE. I moved our development focus from Java as a Web language to Java as the way we solve enterprise problems. Now networks are heterogeneous, parts are coming and going, and they’re parts not just from us but from other people. That’s why Sun is so focused now on the virtualization layer.”
Sun's N1 will turn Papadopoulos' vision into tangible, marketable products. In an impressive first stage of a three-stage initiative, N1 creates a system interconnecting all the major components in a data center. The systems, storage, and network hardware is pooled, virtualized, and reallocated at the administrator's whim. Every box will do whatever it's asked, dynamically connecting with other boxes to fulfill the roles required at the time. When N1 hits stage three, the virtualized interconnected components will work together as though all the pieces live in the same box.
But servers are still an important part of Papadopoulos' job. "We're not giving up our leadership in 64-bit Unix — that would be stupid. As you up the level of abstraction, you get a new opportunity to go back and look at the components." He never quits thinking about how well computers work.
(For profiles on the other nine 2003 InfoWorld Innovators, see Honoring the Innovators.)