The downfall of Sun Microsystems

Dot-com bust, failure to embrace x86 processors ended Sun’s life as an independent company, analysts say

Oracle's surprising US$7.4 billion deal to purchase Sun this week gives Larry Ellison and crew a big stake in the hardware market as well as control over Java and other well-known open source technologies. But it also spells the end of an independent Sun Microsystems, one of Silicon Valley's most prominent companies.

How did it all come to this for Sun, often regarded as one of IT's great innovators during its 27-year lifespan? The dot-com crash at the start of this decade is frequently cited as the beginning of the end for Sun, and for good reason. Acquisition missteps and a failure to monetize key products such as Java also hastened Sun's descent.

"The dot-com bust hurt everybody but it's arguable that Sun was hurt most of all because it had profited so much in the run up to the boom in the first place, and hadn't grown its business out as deeply as IBM and some others had," says Pund-IT analyst Charles King.

Sun's Sparc servers with the Solaris operating system were snatched up by dot-com start-ups because of their stability and flexibility in deploying various applications at affordable prices, King says.

"In the months following the bust, there was a huge amount of Sun product that was out on the street and it precluded the need for people to upgrade or purchase new equipment," King says.

Sun prized its Sparc architecture so much that it missed the industry-wide transition to x86 processors, analysts say. Sun actually did sell x86-based systems in the 1980s, but concentrated its efforts on Sparc for most of the 90s. In King's view, Sun treated x86 systems as nice toys, but not platforms that could be used to power a serious corporate data center. Sun did increase its presence in the x86 market in the years following the dot-com bust with AMD- and Intel-based servers, but it seems to have been too little, too late.

The biggest reason for Sun's downfall is "the inability to recognize the x86 open architecture, as opposed to what they were selling with the Sparc processors," says Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Brian Babineau.

Babineau also faults Sun for pursuing a "non-capitalistic strategy" by emphasizing open source, yet failing to monetize key products such as Java.

King and Babineau both point to failed acquisitions. King notes Sun's $2 billion purchase of Cobalt Networks, a server appliance vendor that was gobbled up by Sun in 2000 but never produced any real dividends for its owner.

Sun has attempted to compete in many different hardware and software markets, but is too often in third or fourth place, Babineau says. Sun bought MySQL for $1 billion in 2008, for example, challenging the database market where Oracle was already king. Sun also executed poorly in the storage market after purchasing the vendor StorageTek for $4.1 billion in 2005, Babineau says.

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