Interview: Crawford Beveridge, executive VP and chairman of Sun Microsystems EMEA

Crawford Beveridge and Marc Heger of Sun Microsystems talk to itp.net about how Sun is working to raise government awareness of open source software, open standards and green IT

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By  Mark Sutton Published  May 27, 2008

Crawford Beveridge, Sun Microsystems executive vice president and chairman for EMEA, and Marc Heger, Gulf District manager, talk to itp.net about how Sun is working to raise government awareness of open source software, open standards and  green IT

CB: I have a relatively small group, about 30 people or so, they are split into two. One group is essentially lobbyists who get to know government and civil servants and so on.

They pool their information into some policy making groups, one of which is ‘Open', a corporate standards group, they worry about open standards, open source, open media formats; there is one group who worries about helping people who want to go to open document formats, understand interoperability issues with things like Microsoft Office; I have a group that worry about privacy and identity and how we affect government policies around those, and one person who deals with our eco group, to make sure we are also affecting government policy around the whole eco stuff.

Most of the work we do doesn't link to any immediate revenues, it is all about policy issues. We are kind of out there five years in front, to make sure the playing fields are as even as we can make them, so that when our sales folks want to go attack government sales, they can do that.

Q. What discussions are you having with governments in the Gulf region around some of those issues?

CB: In terms of operating systems in particular, one of the surprises I have had from the region was how little is known about open source here. It is not that people are opposed to it, it is just that they haven't thought much about it. I had never been anywhere before where [open source] had so little play. On the other hand, there is a lot of money around, and perhaps people don't care about whether they have to pay for proprietary stuff or not.

In terms of the eco and environmental stuff, Sun set off about four years ago on three different paths, one of which was to redesign our microprocessors, so that they would be high performance, but use very low power, which we have now done - they use about a quarter to a third of an equivalent Intel chip.

The second was to get people interested in our thin client technology, so that instead of buying a large expensive PC, you could just put a thin client on your desk, which would use a lot less power and last a lot longer than a PC would.

The third arena was to rejig our manufacturing system, so that we had as minimal an impact on landfill as we possibly could, and we have done that. Now we are currently seeing about 5-6% of our product that hits landfill, everything else gets recycled, and we have a buy back program from our customers to allow us to do that.

The strongest single interest in that so far has been in the EU, where there is a lot of interest in the whole eco issue. I have had several people on this trip who want to hear about it, so I think there is some interest, particularly in the energy sector

Q. How will Sun drive awareness of open source, and what is the key proposition for the region?

CB: We are trying to deal with this through the university system. I spent a bit of time with Qatar university talking to them about open source and about us helping them to build an open source curriculum, so that they can at least teach the kids what open source is about, teach them a bit about java programming, how the Solaris operating system works and so on, and they were quite enthused to do that.

Jonathan Schwarz, our president, wants to make sure that we have as many opportunities as possible to build open source thinking into university curriculums as we can, so that people at least have a choice

MH: We are also doing a lot focus locally on our campus ambassador programs, to drive those people on campus that are promoting [open source] and some of the policies around open source and open standards, and we are really trying to drive that, not from a revenue perspective but from a social economic responsibility and educational point of view.

Q. How much focus is there on open source in local education at the moment? Can Sun do this on its own, or should it be working with others to raise awareness?

CB: I think we will work with others, I have already had discussions with Red Hat, and my counterpart at Google on how we can work on this. I don't think we want to overwhelmingly do it on our own, I don't want to pose it as a ‘Microsoft versus Sun' issue, but to look at choices - people ought to grow up with choices. There is proprietary software and that has certain advantages over open source, and there is open source and that has certain advantages over proprietary. If we can just get universities to evenly teach about these, then hopefully bright kids will make the right choices when they go off to work

MH: It also goes beyond open source. We are looking at some more focused intern programs as well, in places like Saudi and the UAE. It's a means, in a relatively short period of time, to pass information to some of the nationals in the large markets in the region. Open source is huge for Sun, but we are looking to other aspects of education as well.

Q. Are regional governments responsive to direct lobbying, does that approach work?

CB: The flaw is that I'm not very scalable! What we have to try and do is not just influence individual universities, but influence educational ministries. A lot of last year we spent working with the Ministry of Education in China. They believe they are short of several hundred thousand microprocessor design engineers, and we have not only open sourced our software, but also open sourced our hardware design for the Sparc chip. So we worked with them, to take six of their universities, and build a curriculum for microprocessor design. That was a case where we could deal with one small group and effect six universities all at the same time. Ideally that is what we want to do, is to get an education authority to say ‘ah-ha! we really need to drive teaching on open source into our universities', and let them do it.

Q. And in particular, are ministries open to hearing about open source, can you change this lack of awareness at a government level?

CB: All we are trying to do at this stage is to get people to understand that there are alternatives here, and why some of the alternatives might be useful to them. If we take some of the open document formats, like Star Office for Sun, k office, novell office, and say to government - there are three reasons why you need to consider this.

The first is around persistence of documents - if you insist on using a proprietary system, then as you digitize more and more of your citizen's information, and more of your archives, then you need to understand that you are locked in forever to purchasing from a single supplier. If that supplier goes away, you have a real problem in how you are going to have persistence and access to your documents.

Second, most governments want to try and bridge the digital divide with their citizenry, and they want them to be able to access their own documentation online as well as other information from government. If the only way to do that is by citizens buying a $400-500 piece of software, then you already exclude a large number of people. After Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the government insisted that people apply for compensation online, but they had to have IE6 or above to do it, so some 30% of the population never made it to be able to apply because they couldn't access the forms.

The third one is a pure tax payer issue - if you don't need to pay $400-500 a copy for every licence of software for your citizens, why would you? It is really our money that they using to do that. What we are finding is that increasingly governments are doing is buying Microsoft licences for the 25% of workers that we think of as power users, and then using an open office version for the rest at a very inexpensive price.

Q. Is there resistance to open source in the governments here, or purely lack of awareness?

CB: It is purely lack of knowledge. I didn't hear anybody saying ‘I don't want to talk about this'.

MH: There is a thirst for knowledge about technologies in this region, it is not a resistance.

Q. Sun has had thin clients for some time, is the eco message finally hitting home in terms of pushing that type of device?

CB: I have been very interested in thin clients - in the last five years, until two years ago thin client sales were essentially flat - now they have been accelerating every quarter for the last eight quarters.

The three things that are driving them - one is the eco issue, where people see thin client has a much lower power usage and is much more friendly in terms of disposal. The second has been around finding enough qualified systems administrators. If you have 5,000 PCs and you upgrade, somebody has got to go around and do all that. We run 37,000 SunRays at Sun, with four systems administrators. they just don't need that much work. The third has been the security issue, where we use java cards. If I lose the card, nobody can do anything to it. If I lose my laptop, I lose the lot.

So thin client has really taken off, it means we have been able to capture more R&D dollars to put into it, which made thin clients themselves better, and more people want to use them.

MH: There are large scale deployments now in Saudi, UAE, Kuwait, Pakistan, Oman, Yemen almost everywhere, deployments can start off as small as five to ten SunRays, we have customers across the region running thousands. Adoption has been more than 100% growth from last year and we expect that to be replicated across the Middle East.

Q. The thin client message has been there before, the open source message also been around for years, has Microsoft, with Vista, done thin client and open source a favor?

CB: We have an ongoing working relationship with Microsoft to work on issues of interoperability, to work on things like virtualizations software and so on and so on. Personally I do think that Vista has been one of the biggest drivers of people calling us to come talk to us about open document formats. The change to the user interface in Vista, the cost of the upgrade, and the need to buy more powerful machines to run it has caused people to say ‘do I really need all of this?'

It's a wonderful system, it has some fantastic features, but it is a big expensive leap for a lot of people. so we have a lot of people say they want to at least talk to us about Open Office.

MH: In terms of a door opener for our thin client technology, this is ideal timing for many customers, who are looking at doing operating system upgrades, whether it be to Vista or others.

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