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DeWitt comes to terms with Cobalt's end

Some things better left unsaid

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Interview You might think former Cobalt chief Stephen DeWitt would be seeing red after Sun Microsystems put his company out to pasture. Instead, the entrepreneur is seeing blue, or rather azul.

Strange as it might seem, DeWitt harbors no resentment against Sun for killing off the popular Cobalt RaQ and Qube server appliances after a two-year, $2 billion flirtation with the kit. DeWitt drove Cobalt from a tiny start-up to a server design and management software pioneer in just a couple of years. But that's all in the past now with the executive moving on to another start-up - Azul Systems.

"I don't want to look at it as a demise," DeWitt said, in an interview with The Register. "I want to look at it as an evolution. The market that Cobalt created, the vision it had is very safe and very much moving forward in the hands of a lot of other tech companies and in the hands of Sun. The name is gone but the vision lives on."

We were taken aback, to say the least, by DeWitt's comments. Try as we did to have him badmouth Sun, DeWitt would not budge. The man who "lived and breathed" Cobalt and put in "150 per cent effort every day" to the company has no regrets. Cobalt can live on as a costly footnote in Sun's history, and that is just fine.

But why should DeWitt be bitter? Sun purchased Cobalt for $2.1 billion at the height of the insane acquisition era. Back in the day, the deal looked okay as it gave Sun a fleet of edge servers, Linux software and even more presence in service providers' data centers. These days, however, many say Sun was caught up in the hype and the main man doing the hyping was DeWitt.

"I hear all the comments like everybody else," DeWitt said. "I do believe we did a very good job in the interest of Cobalt shareholders. I believe the deal was fair."

DeWitt's analysis of the deal's financial terms falls more or less in line with his view of why Cobalt's demise isn't all that painful - Sun has brought much of the technology in-house.

Sun bought a first-hand look at what a truly elegant server should look like from packaging to nitty-gritty code. Sun has carried much of the Cobalt design to its blade and rack-mount products, making sleek purple kit. Sun's blade designs from a purely Apple-like aesthetic point of view are some of the best in the industry. In addition, Sun's Control Station 2.0 management software, available for blades and Xeon-based kit, is really the next-generation of the Cobalt Control Station code.

Beyond product, Sun also brought in a large portion of the Cobalt staff. Peder Ulander, for example, came to Sun in the Cobalt deal and has become one of the leads behind Sun's Linux desktop efforts.

"Sun has learned how to leverage open source," DeWitt said. "Sun got a tremendous amount of great people that know how to participate in the open source environment."

Ultimately, however, these are just pleasant perks from an acquisition that could have been much more important to Sun's future.

Near its peak in 2001, Cobalt had created a low-cost business model that could rival that of Dell in certain markets while providing customers with unmatched software.

"We were right there with commodity pricing but with all that value-add on top," DeWitt said.

From day one, DeWitt placed a high priority on creating a lean manufacturing process that would let customers receive customized gear at a quick clip. Folks in Round Rock will find this story familiar.

"I remember challenging our operation teams to hit one day lead times internationally, and we got very close to that by the time we got to Sun," DeWitt said.

In addition, Cobalt found a way to "take cost out" by turning to Linux, albeit on very unromantic terms.

"Cobalt was not about Linux," DeWitt said. "Linux was an enabler - a means to an end. You had the ability to create a mail server that would never fail by getting to the kernel level but, at the same time, you could shield non-technical users from the horrors of facing binary issues, drivers and all the rest. It was all about sheltering end users from the complexity of how an application is delivered."

Once inside Sun it was hard to keep up the fine-tuned manufacturing and the intense focus on the customer experience. The problems came from trying to link Sun's massive business model with a more focused, small system at Cobalt.

Over time, Sun could not sustain the appliance business model. Like its rivals, Sun retreated back to the general purpose server except in narrow instances such as security appliances. DeWitt understands the big boys' decision to go this route but thinks it will ultimately be a mistake.

The same entrepreneurial spirit that drove DeWitt from Sun after a brief stay now has the executive convinced that he can return some specialist focus to the server market.

At present, DeWitt will hardly utter word one about Azul Systems. He will only say that more will be revealed later this year.

"We will bring much of the same elegance and sophistication to the market that you saw in Cobalt in solutions that we build here at Azul," he said.

We're not even 50 percent sure what that means but will bet that Azul, like many start-ups circling the server market, is prepping a hardware/software combination that makes application deployment and management a bit easier on the end user. The basic premise is easier hardware and software means less administrators and less data center pain.

The server heavyweights are applying similar verbal gwana-gwana techniques in their marketing be it Sun's N1 vision or IBM's On Demand computing plans. But DeWitt thinks the big boys struggle to help out customers fast enough using their general purpose server approach.

DeWitt went so far as to call this the "Next Big Era of Computing" in which start-ups will use their focus to give Sun, HP, Dell and IBM a real run for their money. Exactly how this will unfold is anybody's guess. Companies in stealth mode aren't all that forthcoming.

But Cobalt fans may find some solace in the fact that whatever Azul comes up with is likely to look familiar, at least on the outside. Azul is the Spanish word for blue - DeWitt's color of choice - and the reason the exec is not seeing red over Cobalt's demise. ®

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