Sun CIO touts ERP consolidation, flex workers

Bob Worrall was promoted from vice president of IT to CIO of Sun Microsystems six weeks ago, filling a vacancy that arose when Bill Vass was named president and chief operating officer of Sun Microsystems Federal. Worrall, 45, has come a long way since his first major IT management position at Worlds of Wonder, the San Francisco Bay area toy company that created the popular Teddy Ruxpin animatronic teddy bear in the mid-1980s. He talked with Eric Lai this week about Sun's massive three-year ERP consolidation plans, as well as how Sun has prepared for the coming flu season.

Besides the day-to-day work of keeping Sun up and running, what projects are you overseeing?

Certainly, the No. 1 continuing effort is the integrated business information solution [IBIS] project, where we are replacing 1,000 applications with a single instance of Oracle. It's just huge, and it's really gripping the company across the world. I have several hundred people working on the project. The first big deliverable is next July, when we will go live with our services and price quotation systems -- like, if someone calls asking about a service contract for some Sun hardware they own. That will be followed closely by establishing our general ledger.

Historically, we've refreshed our hardware every three to five years, but that's been stretched out in the last years because of the business environment. With IBIS, we are doing a complete refresh and consolidating servers onto a combination of UltraSparc and x64 servers, with x64 on the front end. We save money and save energy using servers with low-power processors. I'm always asking our guys to find out how much in rebates we'll be getting from PG&E [for running servers with Sun's Coolthreads technology] this year [laughs].

I understand you are probably the world's biggest user of Solaris Express, the runtime version of OpenSolaris, too. Since the earliest days of Solaris Express, we have followed the same delivery schedule as they.... We provide feedback directly to engineering and catch bugs before the customers do. We always do deploy it into production somewhere, either in an engineering lab or a campus environment or even a data center. It all depends on what the engineers want to validate. We also help make sure the user documentation and installation scripts work well. Our engineers are focused on the operating system, not how Fortune 1,000 companies use it. We can provide the operational perspective.

Will IBIS be running on a grid?

It's an ongoing debate we're having. If the world were in perfect alignment, IBIS would be gridded. But to be frank, there are no serious references of Oracle running in a gridded environment that supports 40,000 users. We'll be using a more traditional E25K platform, which is a big Sun server running in the back room with small thin x64 Web servers on the front end -- though we do have Oracle running on a grid in a nonproduction environment. So we know technically how it works.

How big is telecommuting at Sun?

It is huge. We have about 15,000 to 20,000 employees who are flexible workers, meaning they don't have fixed offices anymore. We have many employees using Sunray thin clients at home. The advantage is that there's no local data, so you don't worry about data being hijacked, and the units are all easily replaceable.

We also have an "office hoteling" notion, meaning you reserve an office as you need one. We just sold our campus in Newark, [California,] which had 4,000 employees. Some people will find permanent offices on other campuses, but more than 80 percent will go flex. Our employee surveys show that it is always the top or second-biggest reason why people continue to work at Sun. We've even received kudos for how this could help us prepare for something like the Avian flu pandemic or a natural disaster. We can now upgrade our VPN gateway in a matter of days so that everyone can work from home, if necessary.

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