After the Sun (Microsystems) Sets, the Real Stories Come Out

Former Sun executives and employees gather for a reunion and talk about pranks, parties, and technical choices—the crazy and the brilliant.

5 min read

Photo: Tekla Perry
Sun Microsystems founders Vinod Khosla (left) and Andy Bechtolsheim (right) tell stories about the sometimes wild early days of Sun.
Photo: Tekla Perry

Sun Microsystems—born in 1982, gone public in 1986, struggling in the 2000s, and absorbed by Oracle in 2010—left its mark on Silicon Valley and the world. In Sun’s wake are 235 000 people who can count themselves as former employees. Its technical splashes continue to ripple through the world today (Sun’s slogan, “the network is the computer”, seems particularly prescient in today’s world of cloud computing). And its legendary pranks have yet to be topped (like “parking” software guru Bill Joy’s Ferrari in a pond and stabbing a giant tree trunk through former CEO Scott McNealy’s office).

On Saturday night some 700 former Sun employees gathered in a Mountain View, Calif., parking lot outside Sun’s first corporate headquarters  to reminisce, network, and, I’m sure in more than a few cases, pitch startup ideas to potential investors.

Photo: Tekla Perry
Former Sun Microsystems employees gather outside the company's first headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

The event started with a suggestion to get a few people together for a beer bust at a local bar, but the invitation quickly went viral, and besides the May event, led to the creation of a website where former employees can post resumes as well as share stories. The event organizers invited half a dozen veteran Silicon Valley journalists to spend some time with former executives before the party, and join the 700 employees during the reunion. While we may have thought we’d heard every story about Sun, it turns out that former executives feel free to spiel freely when their former employer no longer exists. So a few stories were waiting for that cool May evening to be told.

Xerox Parc

The story of Steve Jobs going into Xerox Parc, seeing the Alto workstation, and being inspired to create the Macintosh is widely known. Less well known is that fact that Sun started in pretty much the same way. Sun co-founder and chief hardware designer Andy Bechtolsheim recalls spending a lot of time at Xerox Parc as an unpaid consultant during his graduate student days. These days, the position might have been considered an internship, but in those more informal times, Bechtolsheim recalls, it was more like an invitation to hang around, and he did so as much as possible, mostly testing chip design tools in development. At the time, Parc researchers did their jobs using Parc technology—like the Alto computer, with its bitmapped display and Ethernet connectivity. “That’s where the idea of building a personal workstation for engineers and scientists originated," said Bechtolsheim. "It was obvious even as a grad student that the world needed such a product, particularly for engineers who wanted to do chip design or board design.” He wanted one for himself, but Xerox wasn’t turning it into a product for engineers. So he built it himself using mostly off-the-shelf parts. That attempt turned into the Sun workstation.

Goose or egg?

Sun co-founder Vinod Khosla reported that when he met Bechtolsheim and expressed interest in the technology, Bechtolsheim offered it to him at his standard licensing fee—US $10 000. Khosla said he told Bechtolsheim “I want you, not your technology. I don’t want the golden egg, I want the goose.”

What's in a name

For its first official week of existence in 1982, Sun Microsystems was "Sun Workstation." That was until the founders figured out that nobody knew what a workstation was.

The IBM 360

The very first Sun workstations delivered to a major customer in May 1982 didn’t run Unix; instead, they were used as IBM 360 terminal emulators.

Photo: Tekla Perry
A collection of badges and buttons reminds former employees of Sun's glory days.

The SPARC workstation

The development project that created a workstation based on the SPARC processor only happened because Bechtolsheim went rogue. Bechtolsheim tells the story: “The company was building Motorola-processor based workstations, and Motorola wasn’t keeping up CPU development. Meanwhile, Bill Joy convinced the company that we should use the SPARC chip. By ‘86 Sun was shipping its first SPARC server. By ‘87, there was a discussion—should we put this into a workstation. But the VP of engineering thought this was lunatic, too much risk. Sun at that point was a public company. As a public company, people get instantaneously conservative and make decisions the way Digital Equipment Corp. would make a decision, which wasn’t quick.

But Bechtolsheim thought the risk was worth it, in part because he was worried about what Steve Jobs was doing with his then-new company, Next. “I knew what was going on at Next, because I had a friend who worked there, and I grew concerned that they were building a better product. They were using the [Motorola] 68000 [microprocessor], so I wanted to have a product with a faster CPU, because in terms of cost/performance there’s nothing better than a faster chip."

So Bechtolsheim informally split from Sun in 1987, starting a separate corporation called Unisun. The moniker was intended to give the impression that the new business was going to go after the university market, and not Sun's regular business customers, but, said Bechtolsheim, it was always intended to be a general purpose workstation. Khosla, who by then had left Sun to join venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, funded the venture. "We agreed to fund Andy to essentially rip-off Sun technology,” Khosla recalls.  “We told the board we were going to do this whether they liked it or not, but they could buy back at cost," that is, purchase the company and its intellectual property for the amount of Kleiner's investment.

 “Three or six months after we got going Sun decided it should indeed be a Sun product line, and it came out in 1989; it was Sun’s best selling workstation.”

What-ifs and We-Should-Haves

Besides telling stories, the former executives indulged in a few what-ifs.

Alan Butler, employee number 530, who at age 18 was once Sun’s youngest employee, mused somewhat wistfully: “We should have charged $1 a seat for every Java license” and that would have generated billions in cash annually, perhaps saving the company. “There's a fine line between doing good for the community and doing too good.” Sun didn't charge for most of its Java technology, only for some specialized versions.

Illustration: Randi Klett

Scott McNealy, former Sun CEO, contributed this top ten list to the reunion attendees. McNealy had been scheduled to attend but changed his plans when his son qualified for the NCAA men's golf championships, held that weekend.

Executives think they certainly could have done a few things better. Why, for example, mused John Gage, Sun employee number five and chief researcher, did they do the initial assembly of Sun workstations on the floor? Instead of buying kneepads for the employees who squatted on the hard cement, they could have purchased tables and made everyone vastly more comfortable. In a rush to get going, they had started assembling the computers on the floor, and it simply didn't occur to anybody to change.

Besides a time for sharing Sun stories, the reunion was also a time for stepping back, and taking the long view. That’s perhaps a particularly good thing to remember this month, with Hewlett-Packard’s recent announcement of another 11 000 to 16 000 layoffs sending a shudder through the valley, a reminder that even great companies don’t necessarily last forever. Companies rise and fall, young founders (Sun’s founders were all in their 20s) grow up, and even when the signs in front of a building change (or don’t; Facebook intentionally left a few Sun signs up when it took over the former Sun campus in Menlo Park to remind people of what can happen to a company) the people inside will still be working on cool technology.

Just maybe not while kneeling on the floor.

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