CIO Update Q&A with Sun Microsystems

Long the home of innovation, Sun Microsystems and it’s CIO Bill Vass are always on the cutting edge of technology. A former CIO at the Department of Defense, and the Army, Vass is no stranger to the in’s and out’s of running IT for large organizations while, at the same time, keeping an eye on new technologies and the impact these will have on future operations.

CIO Update sat down with Vass to talk about the challenges of running IT for Sun and the new technologies CIOs everywhere should be focusing on.

CIO Update: As CIO of a high-tech vendor I would assume that technology is where you focus most of your time?

Vass: The largest percentage of my job is managing the business. The easy part of my job is staying up on technology and managing technology. The hard part of my job is interfacing with the business; managing the business; justifying budget; meeting with the board of directors; meeting with senior management, explaining what’s going on, trying to get them to take on changes, and things like that.

That’s where all my time is spent. I probably spend 70% of my time interacting with the business and dealing with business issues. And I don’t think that’s really unusual for a CIO.

But aren’t a lot of CIOs today stuck in the CTO role where they have to spend their days managing technology instead of focusing on the business?

It varies a lot but I think more and more CIOs are moving towards the business side. So they’re people having a good understanding of technology but have to spend a lot more time in the politics, in dealing with business transformation and working cross-organization.

Very few of problems are technical. I can solve any technical problem. It’s always people.

I would say most CIOs spend most of their time interfacing with business users; trying to justify expenditures; laying out plans for optimizing the business; trying to convince the business to do process change or accept change; trying to deal with how to charge-back what you should charge-back and what you shouldn’t; briefing the business on metrics; responding to complaints—we get lots of them.

CIO’s a thankless job. Everybody has done your job before and did a better job than you’re doing right now when you’re CIO.

Why is that? Is IT viewed negatively by your bosses? That would seem kind of odd being Sun is a technology company.

The CEO and COO really like IT so they’re proponents of IT. And I think, in general, the whole executive management group; they’re quite positive about IT but, when you move one level below them, they’re pretty negative about IT. Because I think, to the next level down, we cost too much and we’re too slow.

And when I bring up for IT … for an IT company, for instance Dell, Microsoft, IBM, HP, they invest about four-to-five-to-six percent of their revenue in their IT organizations. Sun, we’re currently running at two percent of revenue which is very lean for a technology company.

I’m challenged at the two-to-two-and-a-half revenue base and part of it is we’re just very efficient and a lot Sun technologies are very efficient I guess compared to Microsoft or somebody else. Second thing is I think were a little under-investing in IT. Four-and-a-half percent is average for the HP, IBM, Dell, Microsoft kind of companies.

What technologies do you see coming down the pike that CIOs need to be aware of?

Grid is very, very important. A lot of people today are pigeon-holing grid into high-performance computing but that’s actually an incorrect assumption. Grid will expand to run your ERP system, it will expand to run your desktop, it will expand to run your high-performance computing loads all on the same architecture.

That’s one thing. SaaS (software-as-a-service), so the idea, in the future I hope at Sun, instead of buying an Oracle license and running Oracle I will instead buy SaaS from Oracle and Oracle will be running on the grid.

So the idea is that I won’t run my ERP system anymore or my CRM system or any of that, it will come in as a service rather than something we create and install and run.

This is not a new idea.

The difference (today) is the bandwidth is there now and the architecture is there to really deliver it in a big way. And you see is a great example of that and its growth. So you’re going to see people like NetSuite, and pretty soon you’ll probably see very large-scale offers from people like Oracle/Siebel responding to that with an SaaS.

Is virtualization key to grid adoption and SaaS services that will run on it?

Virtualization is key. The other thing you’ll see with the new chip multi-threading technology that is out there; not just with Sun but with others as that comes online, we’re just early on that.

So what you’ll have is this virtualization that will deliver loads dynamically based on threading models to maybe three different chip sets: one chip set that is very fast for one thread, one chip set that is very volume for multi-threads and one chip set that handles multi-threads fast.

What other technologies are on your radar? How about nanotech?

The nanotechnology that I think will affect us most over the next five years will be in supply chain and logistics. In collecting data and probes that are RF (radio frequency) connected.

So RFiD, which is in vogue today, will actually change from just being an RFiD to being an RF-MEM (micro electro-mechanical) or nano-device that is an RF sensor. And those RF sensors will … build up together what we call super-nets that will connect together dynamically. And those super-nets will be returning volumes of logistic information that we’ve never seen before back to our ERP system and data warehouse.

And we’ll be able to do a much tighter control of our consumer delivery and our logistic support than we’ve ever done before in the past, which again will optimize business to much greater degree and that’s another change that CIOs have to be ready for.

It’s really not that far away until those things start to happen. So storage will become a very big deal between that and things like IP-TV. Which, again, IP-TV is going to come into a CIO’s enterprise in a big way that they don’t yet understand.

I can see IP-TV falling into the video tele-conferencing space, everything we think of with Real Player and Microsoft Media Player being replaced with IP-TV feeds—it’s going to be another very large change to the enterprise that will come in from the outside.

What you’ll see in the future is very large grids with SOA (service orientated architecture) front-ends that allow applications and display front-ends that allows display information to interact with those grids, out to a desktop kind of thing. And as the network builds out, you’re going to see more and more centralization and less local processing.