Sun CIO anticipates move to software services

In the IT shop of the near future, personnel likely will manage services instead of systems, a Sun Microsystems official said Monday in elaborating both on Sun’s internal plans and what can be expected of the IT landscape at large.

While the average enterprise IT shop now has many servers and client systems, companies including Sun can be expected to utilize online services available over the public Internet, said Robert Worrall, Sun chief information officer and senior vice-president. This will make IT staff act more as service managers than systems managers. Meanwhile, internal application developers instead would find work building applications for service providers.

Sun expects to be at the forefront of this wave.

“We’ve been out talking quite a bit about this notion that the IT organizations of tomorrow are going to look very different from the IT organizations [of] today,” Worrall said. IT will focus more on business than technology, he said.

IT shops will transform from building, deploying, and supporting traditional applications to serving more as aggregators of network services, said Worrall.

Like doctors who do high-level diagnoses and then refer patients to specialists, IT will refer users to providers of services, Worrall said. He cited online CRM specialists, one of the most prominent examples of a SaaS (software as services) vendor, as such a company providing application services.

“We’re simply [espousing] that over a period of time, that will become the norm and not the exception,” Worrall said.

Other examples of online services gaining prominence include e-mail applications from Google and Yahoo and the Oracle On Demand service. ERP and human resources applications also will be leveraged online.

“I think it’s time for us as industry leaders really to get our hands around how we’re going to evolve that model, because like it not, the current models of building hundreds or thousands of customized business applications simply aren’t sustainable,” Worrall said.

Acknowledging user concerns over security and protection of intellectual property, Worrall said services providers will have to provide a model that ensures privacy and data protection. Service-level agreements will become critical in meeting this goal. Concepts such as federated identity will help take care of security issues.

At Sun, the company currently runs about 1,200 business applications. There is no reason these cannot be provided as online services, Worrall said.

In Sun’s vision, the company will buy services, then run them in a browser on a device such as a laptop or a thin client. There will be no need to maintain legions of servers.

Sun currently utilizes about 3,000 servers worldwide to run its business. Sun ultimately would like to be relieved of maintaining its own datacenter, but some servers still would be needed for applications that service providers probably would not offer, such as engineering applications, Worrall said.

“I’d love to say the vision is zero [servers], but I don’t know that we’d ever get to zero,” said Worrall.

The market is already moving to this more efficient paradigm, but Sun internally expects to be largely services-based by 2015, although it could be a few years earlier or later than that, said Worrall.

With Sun itself a purveyor of server hardware, a widespread move to services-based computing by users at large would mean a radical change for Sun’s business model. Its customer base will shift to being service providers, who need to maintain large datacenters. With this paradigm, Sun’s server sales volumes potentially could increase, even if the customer list itself shrinks.

“That’s where I think Sun has the greatest play in the future,” Worrall said.

Meanwhile, companies that otherwise could not afford their own IT networks can avail themselves to online services. IT has been criticized for being too expensive, and the service paradigm addresses this problem. “I can simply buy a standard service off-the-shelf,” said Worrall.

Sun anticipates SaaS moving to the next level, Worrall said. Right now, SaaS tends to have a one-size-fits-all approach to privacy, trust, and service levels. This will not be sufficient, and service providers will need to offer more flexible options, according to Worrall; 24/7 service provision will be essential if large companies are to adopt service-based application models.

As Sun moves toward service adoption internally, the halls of the company’s IT offices may have fewer Java developers. Instead, Sun offices will feature persons focused on vendor management, security, and compliance. Java developers, meanwhile, will find work at organizations building services.

This does not necessarily mean these application development services would be outsourced; a sizable amount of work requires local knowledge, Worrall said.

“Offshoring is not the panacea; you have to have an onshore presence,” he said.

As Sun moves to a services paradigm, the company will need to focus on an ecosystem to accommodate this, because it is not the same as having a traditional ISV strategy, said M.R. Rangaswami, managing director of the Sand Hill Group, an investment and advisory firm that has researched SaaS. Sun must focus on building a partner-friendly environment for the new model, he said.

“In a SaaS model, it’s very different,” Rangaswami said. “You don’t need to give anyone hardware or software; you need to have a program that is very sculpted to give you a quick on-board [entrance] onto the new on-demand ecosystem.”

Fortune 500 companies are taking a look at this model, said Rangaswami. A services-based approach offers benefits such as flexibility and savings in power consumption. But companies must fit application services into their own standards for security and compliance, he said.

Sun customers, meanwhile, are latching onto the services concept over development of internal IT infrastructures. During a recent meeting in Moscow with a group of 50 startup companies, the vast majority said they would not want to build to build their own IT shops, Worrall said. Several large customers in New York City also gave the idea a thumbs-up, he said.

Sun’s, which also has been known as Sun Grid, is a hosted service to provide compute cycles. Although the service was criticized for not gaining much traction in the market, Worrall said the grid service has had some successes in unexpected areas, with developers rather than large enterprises latching onto it. The industry itself needs to mature before grids are as successful as they could be, he said.

Sun does not plan to sell hosted application services, Worrall said.

The company does see open source as a conduit for a service-based application model. Developers can experiment with many solutions without getting locked into a single provider, Worrall said.

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