Slideshow

IN PICTURES: Remember this? The rise and fall of Sun Microsystems

Sun was a tech juggernaut for nearly three decades. It was consigned to memory in 2009, but this year would have been its 30th anniversary so we give this former titan its due.

  • Not a pizza box (1982) The original Sun workstation had all the charm of a mainframe terminal. It featured a Motorola 68000 CPU, 1MB of memory, and a million-pixel graphics display.
  • "We put the dot in dot com" (1999-2001) The famous advertising phrase of the dot-com bubble proved all too true. Fueled by brisk sales of its UltraSparc servers -- which, with Java, proved irresistible to big Web sites everywhere -- Sun was valued at approximately $200 billion at its peak, with a stock price of $247 per share. By the end of 2001 the stock price had plunged to $49 per share.
  • Sun sues Microsoft (1997) Microsoft tried repeatedly to make Windows hostile to Java. When Java threatened to overtake ActiveX as a browser plug-in mechanism, Microsoft released a reverse-engineered Java virtual machine for Internet Explorer. Microsoft later developed a Java-like language, Visual J#, intending to draw Java coders into .Net. The gist of Sun's complaint was that Microsoft illegally co-opted and changed Java for its own purposes. Other complaints were filed, and Microsoft countersued. The very public feud ended in 2004 -- with Scot McNealy and Steve Ballmer calling a truce, shown here -- when Microsoft agreed to pay Sun $2 billion.
  • Solaris rising (1991) Sun's original press release called Solaris "the industry's first 'shrink-wrapped' distributed computing environment available in volume on a compact disc." A collaborative project with AT&T, Solaris merged the three most popular Unix distributions at the time: BSD, System V, and Xenix. It was intended from the beginning to run on x86 as well as on Sparc, but it remained closely coupled to Sun systems. Solaris today comes in an open source version.
  • In memoriam: Sun Microsystems On the cusp of Sun's $US7.4 billion acquisition by Oracle, we look back at the company's auspicious beginnings and rocky life span.
  • Present at the creation (1982) Sun, originally an acronym for Stanford University Network, was the brainchild of Andy Bechtolsheim (second from right), a Stanford University doctoral candidate in electrical engineering and computer science. He partnered with Vinod Khosla (far left), an electrical engineer and Stanford MBA. Khosla recruited fellow Stanford MBA Scott McNealy (far right) over Big Macs at a McDonald's in Palo Alto. Sun Microsystems was incorporated in February 1982 with Bill Joy (second from left), a UC Berkeley computer scientist who helped create Unix BSD, as the fourth founder. Khosla was the first CEO; McNealy took the reigns in 1984.
  • Schwartz takes the throne (2006) Many thought that Scott McNealy's successor, Jonathan Schwartz, was an unlikely choice for CEO. After all, he was a software guy -- albeit a brilliant one -- and hardware sales still accounted for most of Sun's revenue. Before taking over as CEO, Sun's energetic VP told InfoWorld's Tom Yager that he meant to make Sun "the Java company."
  • The network is the computer (1984) Contrary to popular belief, the slogan "the network is the computer" was coined not by Scott McNealy but by John Gage, Sun's fifth employee, in 1984. A colleague of Bill Joy from UC Berkeley, Gage was a math instructor who grew fascinated by computers and went on to become the public face of Sun. His motto predicted cloud computing. Until Sun went off in all directions, it worked as the company's unifying principle.
  • Sun buys MySQL (2008) Over time, Sun accrued a huge stack of middleware -- most of it open source -- including an application server, the N1 management and developer tools, enterprise application integration software, an enterprise service bus, and identity management software. But it lacked a database, which it acquired in the purchase of MySQL, whose open source database had proven wildly popular.
  • Every which way but up (2002-2004) Post-bubble, Sun announced or introduced an incredibly broad array of innovative technologies and products, few of which proved particularly successful for the company in financial terms. Exceptions include UltraSparc T1, a hardware multithreaded RISC CPU that Sun provides under free license as OpenSparc. In addition, the ZFS file system specification, which took years to gain notice, today holds the potential to revolutionize storage management.
  • Andy Bechtolsheim returns (2004) Sun's employee No. 1 returned to the company in 2004 through the acquisition of Kealia, a privately held server design startup. Bechtolsheim took the position of chief architect for Sun's Volume Systems Products Group, where he helped design Sun's family of servers based on AMD's Opteron processor. The new machines sold well, and Bechtolsheim's designs were credited with reinvigorating Sun's x86 server business.
  • Oracle buys Sun On Monday, April 20, Oracle agreed to buy Sun for $US7.4B. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison said that Java and Solaris were the primary reasons. Oracle president Safra Catz said Oracle can squeeze $1.5B in profit from Sun products in 2009, and another $2B in 2010. InfoWorld's Neil McAllister has 10 suggestions for accomplishing that.
  • Sparc: Making RISC commercially successful (1989) RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) grew out of research conducted at UC Berkeley in the 1980s. Sparc (a derivation of "scalable processor architecture") endeavored to commercialize RISC in a workstation CPU. Sun's first specification for Sparc was first published in 1986, but the first workstation product (the Sun SparcStation 1 shown here) with a Sparc CPU did not arrive until 1989. Sparc is an open specification; other companies created Sparc processors based on the spec, including Fujitsu and LSI Logic. (Sparc chip image courtesy of the Computer History Museum)
  • Java takes the stage (1995) The original concept of Java was to create an object-oriented programming language whose code would run on any platform with a Java Virtual Machine. An easily learned language, Java is safer than C but more expressive than Visual Basic. Java's managed code environment increases security, prevents poor programming practices, and supports the development of distributed applications.
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