Sun blames US department concerns for grid delay

Security concerns expressed by the U.S. Department of State have further delayed the rollout of Sun Microsystems' computer grid, a Sun executive confirmed late last month.

The company had planned to implement the Sun Grid initiative in early 2005, but the State Department's worries and other issues caused it to delay its unveiling and make changes to the original plan, said Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's president and chief operating officer.

"It turned out to be much harder than we'd originally expected," Schwartz said at a Feb. 24 press event in Menlo Park, Calif.

"Our servers are considered munitions by the federal government," Schwartz said. "So when we wanted to provision servers off of our computers to a global population, the federal government got involved and said, 'We'd like to know all the people who use this.' "

The company had cited a lack of computing resources when it first delayed the implementation early last year.

A Sun spokesman said last week that the rollout of Sun Grid, which will supply processing and storage capabilities for US$1 per hour, is "imminent."

The updated plan requires that customers who buy access to the grid wait 24 hours before using it so that Sun can ensure that they are not in violation of export controls. Sun can't allow access to users in certain countries, according to State Department rules.

The State Department restrictions will also prevent the product from becoming the global grid once envisioned by Sun. Instead, Sun now plans to roll out a U.S.-only version of the product, followed by different offerings for other regions of the world.

Despite its missed deadlines, Sun still has high hopes for the grid offering.

For example, Sun's product could still be useful for companies that want to do high-performance computing tasks but lack the technical expertise, said Gerry Vest, a systems administrator at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio.

"If you don't have staff on hand or infrastructure for doing this, it's a real steep hill to climb just to get your feet in the water," he said.

On the other hand, the yearlong wait has hurt Sun's credibility, even though the State Department concerns appear "legitimate," said Jonathan Eunice, principal analyst at research firm Illuminata.

"Sun Grid is pretty much a laughingstock, because they announced it multiple times and they failed multiple times to deliver it," Eunice said.

Eunice said that customers may be reluctant to adopt the Sun service as they weigh the compliance and security issues raised by this type of grid computing. "It's not so much a calculated security equation as an icky feeling about doing things differently," he said.

Sun CEO Scott McNealy said that this kind of hesitation ultimately scuttled a Sun Grid deployment with a bank he declined to identify. The bank made so many security- and compliance-related demands that Sun eventually walked away from the deal, he said.

It could take an exceptional event to finally move a large number of customers over to products like Sun Grid, McNealy said. "It may take natural disasters or a real fundamental crisis to break their adhesions to their traditional way of doing things."

Officials from the State Department did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story.

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