McNealy pumps open standards at government trade show

Government agencies need to move toward open standards and managed services to cut IT costs and improve service to customers, Sun Microsystems Inc. Chief Executive Officer Scott McNealy said Wednesday.

McNealy used part of his keynote and a later press conference at the FOSE technology-in-government trade show to trumpet Sun products and push for open standards, saying open standards and open-source software can reduce the exit costs associated with IT products.

Vendors like to brag about the acquisition and maintenance costs, but few talk about exit costs that can dwarf those other expenses, even though technology products have the “self life of a banana,” he said.

McNealy, whose company pushes the open standards Java platform and participates in the Open Document Format Alliance, recommended government agencies buy commercial software built on open-source code, instead of downloading open-source software and running it without commercial support. But software built on open code allows customers to change vendors without massive exit costs, he said.

“Sharing … lowers your barrier to exit,” he said. “By building on open-source software, you’re guaranteed that if I overcharge, somebody else will start a business based on the reference code and charge less.”

McNealy also focused on managed services, saying nearly all computing functions, including storage and computing power, will soon be available on a managed grid. The U.S. Congress might have to change some procurement laws to allow many government agencies to take advantage of this computing services grid, but most agencies not affiliated with military or intelligence functions could benefit from a grid of managed services, he said.

“The barrier to exit on the grid is zero,” he said. “When you’re done, you leave.”

Sun’s computing grid has been delayed, however, partially because of U.S. Department of State concerns about foreign governments using it. Sun had planned to implement its grid in early 2005, but Sun officials said last month that State Department concerns about the computing power used as a weapon by foreign governments have held up the project.

McNealy defended the grid concept in a press conference, saying it makes sense for government agencies to in effect outsource their computing functions. “The point is, is the government in the business of maintaining [IT] infrastructure?” he said. “I don’t think so.”

The concept of software as a managed service is already popular, he added. “We’re taking it one step down — computing as a service,” he said.

Asked about the security implications of government agencies moving many functions to a commercial managed service, McNealy said he saw little cause for concern. Security breaches happen, he acknowledged, but the private sector already holds much more valuable personal information about most people than the government does, he said.

“The problem with the government blowing it is, we can try to vote them out, but that’s hard,” he said. “If an enterprise blows it, we can move to another supplier, and they’re out of business. The government never goes out of business.”

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