SUN NETWORK: Sun details Linux plans

SAN FRANCISCO – In an attempt to return to its “disruptive” roots, Sun Microsystems Inc. says it will build a new Linux desktop computer that promises serious cost savings compared to traditional PCs.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based software and hardware builder on Wednesday announced its plan to build a Linux desktop computer that relies on open-source programs and hefty network connectivity for high performance.

According to Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s executive vice-president, software, employing this new device instead of standard PCs could save companies US$500,000 in administration costs over five years.

The box, known only as the “Mad Hatter” project for the moment, is a tower-shaped computer with a Java card reader. This technology essentially pushes some of the computing tasks away from the desktop and onto a server.

It spells a shift in the way companies consider networked devices, Schwartz said during his presentation at Sun’s SunNetwork user conference, in San Francisco. Rather than give the user a dedicated computer, an employer would give him a Java card encoded with identity information. The user would put this card into whatever Linux desktop machine happens to be available. The computer would connect to the server-based identification portal, where the user would enter his password to access applications.

With much of the computing power at the server, the desktop becomes little more than a “thin client,” which is easier to administer than traditional desktop machines, Schwartz said.

For one thing, the device is network-centric, which makes for quicker software upgrades, he said. As well, the new box should come cheap compared to traditional computers, thanks to low-priced applications on board. It will ship with the GNOME desktop environment and other open-source applications like the Mozilla Web browser, an e-mail and calendaring program called Evolution and Sun’s word-processing app StarOffice.

Schwartz called the new device a “disruptive innovation,” but Sun has traveled this bumpy road before. The company has been on a thin-client kick for about six years, Schwartz said, admitting that the Sun Ray thin-client device hasn’t exactly made the big splash the firm hoped it would.

So why does Sun think this new Linux box is the right thing?

Schwartz said Sun’s previous thin client play was ahead of the curve. Now enterprises looking for low-cost computing solutions are considering products like the Sun Ray, so the time is right for the Mad Hatter project, he said.

“We think there’s a big market out there for fixed-function environments,” said Scott McNealy, Sun’s president and CEO during a SunNetwork press conference. “We’re not targeting general-purpose PC users,” but companies where end users need computers for a small range of functions, such as call centres and retail outlets, he said.

McNealy said Sun is sticking by its mantra, “the network is the computer.” He added that the Mad Hatter announcement is part and parcel of the company’s vision.

Schwartz said the primary difference between the Mad Hatter device and Sun Ray lies in each computer’s capabilities when disconnected from the network. The Sun Ray relies solely on servers for computational power, whereas the new Linux box can perform some functions even when divorced from the LAN.

Amy Wohl, an industry analyst from Narberth, Penn. who attended the conference, said Sun could have a winner with Mad Hatter, assuming the company sticks to the product’s likely target audience: large companies where massive computing power at the end user’s desktop makes no sense.

Keith McFarlane, a tech manager with Avaya Inc. who also attended the conference, said Mad Hatter makes sense now more than ever. Avaya implements call centres and “our customers are looking in that direction,” towards thin clients, he said. As well, “they’re starting to realize the benefit of going with open systems.”

Still, McFarlane said he thinks the thin client craze won’t catch up with Sun’s vision for another “four to five years or so. None of these things take off over night.”

Schwartz said it’s too soon to talk about pricing. The Linux box won’t ship until 2003 at the earliest. According to other Sun representatives, the company is considering selling the device in bundles – like a ready-to-play system for call centres and such, with the requisite number of nodes, Java cards and an identity server for user connections to the LAN.

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