Sun blogs show uncensored public face

On the morning of April 15, as Sun Microsystems was preparing to announce its quarterly earnings and a major executive management shuffle, the company was hit with a denial of service (DOS) attack that came within four minutes of blocking it from posting the news to the Sun.com Web site on time.

The DOS attack wasn't reported in the press, but you can read a blow-by blow account of it on a new blogging site that Sun has quietly launched over the past few weeks.

"1:30 pm: I'm getting calls from all kinds of people -- VPs, you name it. If we blow this, we're in serious trouble," wrote Will Snow, the director of Internet services engineering who runs the Sun.com Web site.

"Sometimes I think network hardware providers are behind DOS attacks -- I've been hit 3 times, and each one caused me to buy new network gear," he wrote, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Two months ago, Snow's public comments could theoretically have got him fired under a company policy that made any public comment unsanctioned by the company's legal and marketing departments a sackable offense.

But in an effort to improve its communications with the outside world, Sun has now set up a blogging system that lets any employee create a blog on the Sun.com site. More than just a bold experiment in vanity publishing, Sun sees its Blogs.sun.com Web site as a possible model for a new type of grassroots corporate communication, according to Tim Bray, one of the creators of XML who was hired by Sun earlier this year and has been driving its blogging effort.

The policy restricting public comments was dropped following an April 7 meeting to examine ways in which Sun might improve its collaboration and communication with outside users and developers. In attendance was Sun's president and chief operating officer, Jonathan Schwartz, who days earlier had been promoted to the number two position at the company.

"I think Jonathan is particularly concerned that we not forget our roots as a community-centered company," said Bray, the director of Web technologies at Sun who called the meeting.

Bray and others in the room were wrestling with how a large company like Sun could better communicate with developers and technical users who had little use for the information coming out of the company's marketing department. "The language of marketing is the language of faceless corporations, and most people don't like it," Bray said. "I think the company got a little bit of a case of 'big company' disease. It's hard for a big company to be good at communication."

Soon after the April 7 meeting, Sun was on its way to becoming less of a "big, faceless company." Sun executives drafted a new "Policy on Public Discourse" and Snow was enlisted to set up a server to host the blogs.sun.com Web site, which would be Sun's unfiltered public face to the outside world.

"As of now, you are encouraged to tell the world about your work, without asking permission first," states the policy - which is posted on Bray's blog.

To date, approximately 40 bloggers have signed up for Blogs.sun.com, which was unveiled in an internal Sun announcement on Thursday, Snow said.

Sun's blogs aren't entirely unsullied by the company's marketing department. The most popular contributor to date is Mary Smaragdis, a Sun marketing manager whose breathless enthusiasm for Java and the personalities at Sun is matched only by the frequency of her posts.

Smaragdis managed no less than 12 posts in one day while attending Sun's SunNetwork conference in Shanghai this week, peppering them with candid photos of show attendees and comments like "People were literally on the edge of their seats," "Awesome keynotes," and "John Gage is a true genius," referring to Sun's chief researcher.

She even has a story about being recognized at the show by a Macromedia Inc. executive. "Are you Mary -- the one blogging?" he asked, according to her posting.

By offering more public comment from those working in the trenches, Sun hopes to paint a clearer picture of its thinking and avoid the kind of strained relationship that has colored its dealings with open source developers over the years. Sun engineers will also be able to better promote the interesting work they're doing, Snow said.

In 1999, for example, developers working on the open-source Blackdown project were offended when Sun's marketing department failed to give them credit for their work when it announced the release of a version of Java for Linux. And Linux developers have been upset by disparaging comments about the free operating systems made by some of Sun's senior executives.

Though a handful of Sun employees, like Java creator James Gosling, have maintained blogs for a year now on Sun's Java.net Web site, Blogs.sun.com is the first place where any Sun employee can start a public blog on the company's Web site.

While the extent of its blogging project may be novel, Sun isn't the first company to try such an experiment. In January, Microsoft Corp. began publishing employee blogs on its Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) Web site.

Bray believes that Blogs.sun.com is more than simply an experiment in developer relations. According to him, the kind of corporate blogging being done by Sun and Microsoft and others could ultimately have applications outside of the world of technology. A company such as PepsiCo Inc., for example, could use the technology to better communicate with a specialized audience, he said.

"There's a huge community of retailers, grocery merchants and so on who probably care intensely about the moves that Pepsi is making," he said.

Sun is working to provide better support for blogging and the RSS (Rich Site Summary) content syndication format in its Portal Server and Java Enterprise System products, which could make it easier for Sun's software customers to develop a similar system, Bray said.

"We're convinced that the Java ecosystem should have good support for creating a blog, for posting to a blog, and for creating a syndication feed," he said.

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