KINGSTON, Ont. – Scott McNealy’s Top Ten List of what he likes about no longer being chief executive of Sun Microsystems Inc. includes being able to sell his last business suit and shave “even less often,” and responding to any tough question with “see Jonathan on that.” Number one on the list is that his new office is very close to the men’s room.
But seriously, since handing over the CEO’s job to Jonathan Schwartz, McNealy has been busy. “I’ve been traveling more,” he said. “I wanted to get out of Jonathan’s hair and let him grab the reins and make sure it’s clear who’s in charge.”
McNealy said he is focusing on four areas in particular – Japan, Sun’s large service provider customers, government and education. That last focus brought him to Queen’s University Thursday afternoon to help celebrate the expansion of the High Performance Computing Virtual Laboratory (HPCVL).
The HPCVL, a supercomputing facility founded in 1998 by Queen’s and Royal Military College in Kingston and Carleton University and University of Ottawa in Ottawa, has since added Toronto’s Ryerson University and Seneca College as members in 2004. It has 1,100 central processing units and 175 terabytes of storage spread across five sites.
Sun is the major private-sector supporter of HPCVL, which is the largest installation of its kind of Sun equipment anywhere in the world.
Delivering the keynote address at HPCVL’s expansion event on the Queen’s campus Thursday afternoon, McNealy said academic computing facilities like HPCVL play an important role, noting that Sun itself grew out of Stanford University and University of California at Berkeley.
“This stuff doesn’t have an immediate return on investment,” he said. “You don’t know where it going to go, you don’t know what’s going to happen.” But “if you don’t set that opportunity up, it just isn’t going to happen.”
Also speaking at the event, Dr. Kerry Rowe, Queen’s vice-principal of research, said HPCVL is helping scientists conduct pioneering research in ways that were not possible before. “HPCVL helps institutions fulfill their research mission and keeps Canada competitive in a fast-changing world,” Rowe said.
Dr. Karen Hitchcock, principal of Queen’s, noted that HPCVL serves researchers across Canada and described it as “clearly a national resource.”
McNealy used his keynote speech to touch on several of his favourite causes, including thin-client computing and the digital divide, with a few digs at rivals IBM and Microsoft thrown in.
He illustrated his comments on mainframe data centres with a slide showing the head of Frankenstein’s monster, saying the facilities are “stitched together,” leaving companies wondering “why instead of five nines they get nine fives availability.” He described the present desktop computing model – with the computing power and software concentrated in the client – as “just plain wrong,” and promoted thin clients such as Sun’s SunRay device as a way to make computing more reliable, cheaper and more secure.
“Can anybody in the room name a Java virus?” he asked. “Interesting – I can’t either .I’d be the first to know. Well, maybe the third or fourth.”
Thin-client computing can also reduce power requirements, McNealy said. He touched on the issue of power consumption several times, and tied it in with the issue of the digital divide – the fact that more than three quarters of the world’s population still has no access to information technology. Even if there were a way to supply computers to everyone, he said, it would not be possible because of the power requirements.
McNealy’s answer to that problem is – not surprisingly perhaps – thin-client devices communicating over third-generation wireless networks. And who will make affordable computing services available to those devices over those networks? Governments will do some of it, McNealy said in an interview following his talk, and private-sector service providers will do so in order to expand their markets.
McNealy is also promoting the Global Education and Learning Project, a recently launched effort to create a complete, freely available set of online learning materials for kindergarten-through-grade-12 education, and later for higher education as well. Likening the project to open source software, McNealy said its goal is to make education accessible to more people.
In the next five to seven years, McNealy said, there will be half a dozen phenomena like Google “that make Google look wimpy,” but nobody can predict what those will be. In an interview, though, he said voice over IP, wireless and software as a service are among the most interesting technology areas to watch today. Software as a service, and shared computer grids like the Sun Public Grid that offers computing power to anyone at $1 per CPU hour (currently available only in the U.S.) will offer new opportunities to small and medium-sized businesses that lack the technical resources to run such facilities on their own, he said.