McNealy defends Sun reliability, privacy views

During a visit to his company's offices here today, Sun Microsystems Inc. Chairman and CEO Scott McNealy met with Computerworld News Editor Don Tennant for a candid discussion of issues ranging from how Sun dealt with a serious server reliability problem to the ire he's raised among privacy advocates over his stance on national ID cards. Excerpts from the interview follow:

Q: We reported last year about the problem with the external memory cache on UltraSPARC IIs that was causing a lot of Ultra Enterprise servers to crash. Is that something you're still grappling with, or is it history?

A: We're no longer buying IBM SRAM [static random-access memory]. They were the biggest source of the problem for us. They knew about it before, and they didn't tell us. I actually interviewed an employee [who formerly worked at IBM] -- I saw his resume. And I said, "You knew about this?" He said, "Oh yeah, a year ago IBM stopped using this SRAM because there are alpha particle problems and the soft error rate is high." Imagine that, we didn't get told about it. But IBM sure made a big point of telling all of our customers about it a year and a half ago. But we don't have that issue anymore. We designed IBM out of that and put [error checking and correcting logic] across the entire cache architecture.

Q: Are you fully confident that your new Sun Fire 15K server is free of this whole memory cache problem?

A: We designed all of that stuff out, yeah. In fact, all of our old products we've upgraded to mirrored SRAM. It handles it on the fly and the problem went away. We're exceeding all of our design specs on all of our servers right now.

Q: So now that IBM is out, who supplies your SRAM?

A: Sony [Corp.] and a couple others. You just go find suppliers who treat you with integrity and provide a quality product and good price/performance. It was our fault. We didn't screen the SRAM for soft error rates.

Q: Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM have recently lowered their Unix server prices to compete more aggressively against Sun. Do you see a Unix server price war coming?

A: There [already] is one. No lie, it's a two-company short list situation right now -- only IBM and Sun. I cannot tell you the last time I ran into HP as a legitimate competitor. It's been a year and a half since I've run into Compaq [Computer Corp.] as a server company. In the enterprise world, midrange to high end, it's only IBM and Sun. And there's a huge price war between IBM and Sun.

Q: So you'd be willing to knock prices down further if you need to?

A: We'll do whatever we need to do.

Q: Speaking of HP and Compaq, do you think the merger will happen?

A: I sure hope so. Can't you tell the [Hewlett and Packard] kids just to back off? Either way, they're kind of hosed. Both of them have given up on their RISC/Unix strategies; both of them have decided they're going to be Wintel resellers -- they're going to be grocery stores for Wintel. So either way, at this point it doesn't matter. Even if Hewlett's kid were to take over and say, 'We're going to be in the RISC/Unix business,' I'm not sure that customers would believe it now.

Q: Sun has done quite a bit in the way of Linux support, but you really haven't gone the IBM route of marketing Linux-based systems. Why is that?

A: We're the No. 1 Linux appliance server supplier in the world with the Cobalt line [from the acquisition of Cobalt Networks Inc. last year]. We have Linux extensions to Solaris. We just don't think a Linux partition on a mainframe makes a lot of sense. It's kind of like having a trailer park in the back of your estate.

Q:You get privacy advocates all in a tizzy when you talk about your support for a national ID card and especially about chip implants for kids. Have you taken any heat from the board or elsewhere within Sun for supporting something so unpopular and controversial?

A: The problem with this particular issue is it's way more complicated than a classic, single, one-line zinger that I tend to throw out just to kind of tweak everybody. Like, 'You have no privacy, get over it.' I'm pretty famous for that one. But nobody understood the five paragraphs before it and the five paragraphs after it because the press doesn't have time and people don't have the attention span to really sit down and really understand. Anybody who understands my perspective on authentication says it's ultimately and fabulously logical.

If there were no audit trails and no fingerprints, there would be a lot more crime in this world. Audit trails deter lots of criminal activity. So all I'm suggesting, given that we all have ID cards anyhow, is to use the biometric and other forms of authentication that are way more powerful and way more accurate than the garbage we use today.

Q: Is Sun doing any research and development to make it all happen?

A: It's called a Java card. It's already done -- the technology's all there. There's a second question of whether you want to have a national database. The national database is where the privacy advocates get all bent out of shape when I'm talking about an ID card. Identifying yourself is way different from creating a database on you. And I have no problem with it being illegal for the government to create a database on anybody. But you can get wiretap authority; you could also get the same authority to agree to build a database on [an individual]. And because we have an audit trail of you at your bank, at your airline, and your Internet service provider and all the rest of it, if we think you are a potential terrorist and we've gone to the courts and shown enough evidence, the government should be able to quickly build a national database on you for just that instance, for that particular issue.

So I get all this random hate mail from these lunatics -- you can't believe the anger these folks have. But just because you have an ID card doesn't mean the police have the right to walk over and say, 'Produce it.'

Q: Do you ever think about retiring?

A: Every day. No, not really. I can't leave my kids to Microsoft [Corp.]. The government won't fight the battle. The government won't enforce the laws.

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