Sun cluster guru joins MS in brain drain

Top-level defections hit N1

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Exclusive A few bombs have dropped within Sun Microsystems' software division, as employees have departed to potentially greener pastures.

The most prestigious name is Dr. Yousef Khalidi, distinguished engineer and chief technical officer for N1 products at Sun, who has defected to Microsoft. Khalidi was the brains behind Sun Cluster 3.0, much of Solaris 9 and was appointed to provide technical guidance to N1 - Sun's software and hardware management package. A few months back, we have confirmed, Khalidi decided to join the dark side.

Khalidi's defection to Microsoft comes as a huge shock given his apparent devotion to Sun. For years, he has extolled the virtues of Unix and Sun's systems company approach to computing. He closely guarded company secrets but now is no doubt coughing them up to Sun's bitter enemy. Khalidi joins former colleague Jim Hebert, Microsoft's General Manager for the Windows Server Product Management Group but formerly in charge of Sun's gwana-gwana mine.

"Obviously you never like to lose bright people who have been important to you in the past," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata. "But I think you can overstate, in a lot of cases, the importance of a single person."

Haff is right, but Khalidi is not the only departure. Steve MacKay, the former vice president of N1 at Sun has retired, to be replaced by David Nelson-Gal - an old Solaris hand. MacKay brought the N1 vision to life at Sun. He launched the strategy that is key to Sun's future as a competitor to HP's Adaptive Enterprise and IBM's On-Demand Computing programs. The two managers most directly in charge of N1 are no longer at Sun.

Nineteen members of Sun's N1 team have also departed to software start-up Cassatt. Cassatt is going along the N1, Adaptive Enterprise, On-Demand route in its own way. The company is not talking too much about how its products will work, but it is saying that it hired 19 of Sun's N1 engineers away from the company.

Sun insiders, however, say that Cassatt is being overzealous in its characterization of the 19 workers. They are reported to have come from a Sun division in Broomfield, Colorado that handled some remote monitoring services. The insiders say these were not R&D type folks.

A Sun spokesman also denied that the workers were in the N1 organization but would not comment on what their roles were at the company.

Cassatt is run by BEA co-founder Bill Coleman and has hefty backing from Warburg Pincus and a little more cash from HP. Coleman, also an ex-Sun employee, has hired an impressive list of executives and talent to back up the new company. Some ex-Cray folks joined along with a number of ex-IBMers, HP folks and you name it.

Given this level of talent and the relatively muddled plans of Sun, HP and IBM, Haff gives Cassatt a fighting chance in the virtualization software market.

"Certainly a grand plan to manage the datacenter of the future is a tough undertaking -especially for a startup," Haff said. "On the other hand, I'm not sure that any of the biggies - HP, IBM, Sun, etc. - really have a well-defined plan on how to usefully implement their various grand visions in detail. So a startup may have an outside chance to slip in and make it big with an unconventional approach. But it won't be easy."

Apparently Cassatt's approach is compelling enough to draw 19 of Sun's staff away from their fairly secure positions at the company.

This raises the question as to why they left.

Maybe the acquisitions of companies such as Pirus, Terraspring and CenterRun by Sun created a glut of virtualization gurus. Or perhaps a savvy manager just brought along his team for the ride at Cassatt. ®

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