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Sun Microsystems has tasked its former OpenSolaris chief Ian Murdock - the founder of the Debian Linux distro - with devising a cloud-computing strategy for the company.

Ian Murdock has been quietly named vice president of cloud-computing strategy following the re-organization last November that created Sun's cloud group and that killed the Sun software organization that Murdock had been working for.

Murdock's posting emerged in conversation with Lombardi Software's Barton George at last week's Cloud Computing show, which Murdock said he was attending to "better understand the emerging cloud computing industry and the role that Sun can play in it". The interview has been posted to George’s blog.

Dave Douglas remains the head of cloud computing for Sun as senior vice president of the cloud-computing and developer-platforms group.

You’d expect Douglas as senior vice president to be in charge of cloud strategy, so Murdock’s appointment suggests some overlap in a company trying to cut costs.

Sun declined to clarify how the two men’s roles would be different, with a spokesperson saying simply that Sun does not share org charts.

Murdock, though, seems to have suggested to George an ambassadorial role - repeating work that had been undertaken by others during his OpenSolaris days, where they reached out to other open-source groups and individuals. Murdock said he’s interested in a "general discussion" about standards for the cloud. "Given the role Sun has played in the industry around open standards, I personally think this is going to be a very big part of Sun's contributions to cloud computing."

Murdock compared today's cloud market to the open-source software frontier of 1993 when he founded Debian: a lot of grass roots interest but technologies for those with a "high degree of skill". He wants to find the "Linux distro equivalent of the cloud industry".

Murdock's appointment demonstrates the shift in Sun's thinking from the open-source software mindset of two years back and into the nebulous cloud market.

In 2007 open-source software was the meme percolating through Sun, epitomized by the work on OpenSolaris - a copy of Red Hat's Fedora project and distro - and Murdock's hire. The thinking was to open-source Sun's software and monetize the resulting developer buy-in. Murdock was seen to bring in experience in building and running projects that could benefit OpenSolaris, while the weight of the name would suck in support.

Measured by packages, OpenSolaris could be considered a success: 22,863, up from 1,000 on launch in May 2008, versus 28,488 for the latest planned release of Debian: Lenny. In terms of uptake, the jury staunchly refuses to re-enter the court as most committers are from Sun and the company only provides download numbers rather than actual uptake figures.

With the results of the software focus failing to live up to the theory, and with new management oversight from its investors, the pressure has been on Sun to find a new hope. That hope has been identified as cloud computing.

Sun last December introduced Douglas, who was named senior vice president of cloud computing in the summer, in a press and analyst event intended to put a stake in the ground following the previous month's inglorious re-organization and announced layoffs. It was an event that promised a discussion on Sun's future cloud offerings

Problem was, Sun couldn't share any specifics and simply repeated accepted industry generalities about the benefits and inevitability of the cloud. It added the obligatory parts about cloud's importance to Sun and how Sun is positioned to succeed in this new space.

So far, Sun’s cloud-computing strategy seems to consist of a decision that the company’s pay-per-use Network.com utility-computing service does not work - so it's been shuttered - but that data-center-as-a-service does work, so this month it bought Q-layer.

No doubt, having multiple heads of clouds and strategy fits some big Sun game plan. Either that, or it’s just moved developers from the old software group to the cloud group.

Whatever’s going on, Sun hasn’t made Murdock’s strategy role easy for him, as we've been told he has no staff beneath him to work with. Again, Sun refused to comment citing the fact it does not share org charts.

That’s a far cry from the glory days of 2007 and 2008, when software was the mission and while he was chief operating-system platform strategist and then vice president of developer and community marketing people liaised with other open-source bodies, and evangelized OpenSolaris for Murdock and Sun.

It’s also a challenge, and it implies whatever it is Murdock does he’ll be responsible for going out there on his own and for reporting back.

The only consolation is that things aren't much better in the OpenSolaris world these days. As news of Murdock's appointment broke, it emerged that those who'd been tasked with building community outreach around OpenSolaris were among the 1,300 laid off in a first round of planned cuts to reduce costs. ®

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