% fortune -ae paul murphy

The top Sun Ray myths

One of the lessons I believe we can learn from productivity change in the telecom industry is that centrally provisioned services can be extremely attractive to consumers provided that the service provider does not impose artificial controls on what the user can do with the device.

My favorite tool for implementing this idea in IT combines Solaris on SPARC with Sun Ray desktops and the devolution of systems control (as opposed to systems operation) to user management.

I'll talk about the management aspects of this a bit next week, but for now thought I'd recognize the reality that very few IT people have ever actually seen, never mind used, a Sun Ray by summarizing the top reasons people put forward to argue that it's not as good as a PC:

  1. if the network goes down, you go down.

    This is true. You should note, however, three things about this claim:

  2. laptops are a requirement.

    There is a Sun Ray laptop, but I don't normally recommend it. Instead I usually suggest that laptop requirements be carefully reviewed and appropriate Apple, Linux, or Wintel gear issued where needed.

    In most cases such reviews produce non obvious results: today's iPhone (and tomorrow's clones) can do a lot of what laptops used to be needed for; most people who claim to work effectively on the road, don't; most people who want laptops as desktop replacements are really trying to escape centralized IT controls on software change and/or shared licensing; and, most client-site use of laptops poses significant but unquantified risks to both proprietary and client data.

  3. screen space and resolution are limited.

    A few people who send me email have experience with the earliest Sun Rays - and 13 inch early laptop style screens. Those days are long gone - now Sun's "thinguy" puts pictures in his blog showing dual and quad head Sun Rays displaying Windows server software running at 3840 x 1200

  4. there's no software.

    The Sun Ray runs no user software - it's a just a user interface device displaying whatever it's sent and capturing user input for transmission to the application. As a result it is currently usable with essentially all Windows, Linux, and Solaris software - and can handle Mac software written for use with the X11 interface too.

    In other words, the device is usable with more software than anything else out there.

  5. the fact of central control renders systems using this as unresponsive as 1970s data centers.

    It is true that IT tends to centralize control - and it is also true that in the Windows world larger organizations have no other reasonable choice because decentralizing control is simply too expensive both in terms of support and in terms of the "security" risks inherent in any PC use.

    However, how a Unix/Sun Ray data center treats its users depends on its managers, not the hardware. You can centralize both control and processing (and most people do, because that's how they've been trained), but you don't have to..

    What you can do, instead, is centralize processing while decentralizing control.

    Remember: the business costs and usage constraints imposed by the 1970s IBM data center; costs and constraints that are now being re-invented and re-applied in big organization Windows environments, are artifacts of cultures, costs, and software limits which simply don't apply in the Unix/Sun Ray world.

    In other words, you can get this effect: but it indicates managerial incompetence with respect to the technology and is not a necessary consequence of the technology.

  6. it can't handle video conferencing, movies, sound

    Yes, it can.

  7. everything costs more - support people, hardware, software

    Quite the reverse: if you've got a thousand desktops, anything you need for any significant chunk of them will cost less to implement on Unix/Sun Ray than on any other environment.

    The people side of this argument is particularly compelling. It's true that for every good Unix sysadmin you can hire you'll get ten or more MCSE style applicants hireable in a Windows world - and that the sysadmin will cost you at least a third more than the Windows people. On the other hand, appropriate staffing ratios for Windows are much higher than for Unix: so for a thousand desktops you'll probably need about 20 IT FTEs for Windows versus 4 or 5 for Unix - and one of those would really be an understudy and holiday fill-in kept on in case someone else gets hit by a bus - or, worse: a spousal demand requiring off-net travel.

  8. It's no good for graphics intensive processing or any other application requiring lots of desktop processing.

    This is true: Sun Ray is best suited to a shared processor environment and performance limited by bandwidth to the server.

    There are, however, two things to note about this:

So what's the bottom line? most of the more widely cited negatives for Sun Rays are pure nonsense. Sun Rays are not the right answer for a hobbyist who wants to play games, surf the web, and pretend to program - but for large organizations the negatives simply don't hold up - and we haven't looked at the positives at all yet.

(Note: I'm "off-net" until Sunday (a victim of spousal abuse!)) and won't be able to respond until then. Meanwhile Sun's Craig Bender - Mr. Thinguy - will be responding in defense of the Sun Ray. )

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.