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Companies That Listen: Sun

December 13, 2007

I’m a sucker for companies that listen to their customers. I’m sure you are too. How many times have you gotten a product that’s nearly perfect but is missing that final touch? Or worse, the product just doesn’t live up to it’s expectations? Don’t you usually feel helpless in the face of some huge software/electronics/car/whatever company? I know I do.

For example, the monopolistic cable company I’m forced to use, Comcast, hasn’t figured out how to deliver TV to my house for more than a month (isn’t that sorta what they do?) – and I’m helpless!

I’m happy to report that Sun listens to their customers. Really, truly, listens. Even to small ones like me. Even to small ones like me who complain loudly when a product isn’t right (but who cheer equally loudly when it is).

As you may have gathered from Jonathan Schwartz’s blog post ‘The Internet As Customer’, we were one of the attendees at Sun’s information gathering event, and it was fascinating.

One of my biggest takeaways (other than that Sun listens to their customers) is that Sun’s customer base is amazingly schizophrenic. Check out this small cross sample of some of them:

  • Some customers don’t want to buy Sun hardware unless they’ve embraced Linux (like, say, us). Others are freaked out that Sun is embracing Linux and are afraid it shows a lack of commitment to Solaris. (Wonder what they think about the new Windows deal? 🙂 )
  • Some customers wouldn’t even be customers if it weren’t for AMD/Intel support (us again). Others see this as the death knell for Sun’s custom hardware and are worried.
  • Some customers don’t want to use Sun technologies unless they’re open source (us yet again). Others think Sun’s giving away the farm and that proprietary software (and hardware!) is the only way to survive.
  • Some of us can’t stand the complicated buying process and just want ‘Amazon for servers’ through a web UI (can you guess if this is us?). Others love having complicated, but complete and thorough, ordering channels.
  • A few of them worry that a focus on Java could possibly mean a de-emphasis of datacenter technologies (we don’t use Java, but this isn’t a fear I share). Others wish Sun would just focus on the most important thing to them, Java, and get rid of all this boring datacenter muck already!

I hope you get the general idea – and I’m so super glad that I don’t have to deal with a customer base nearly this broad and fractured. Whew! I don’t know how they do it!

A few quick notes:

  • This was an incredibly expensive event for Sun. Not in the the-food-must-have-cost-a-fortune sense of the word, but in the sheer-man-hours sense of the word. Going to the event, I knew Jonathan was speaking for an hour or so on the first day. I assumed that, being a busy guy with a multi-billion-dollar business to run, he’d speak and then leave to go run Sun. How wrong I was. Jonathan stayed the entire time, as did Scott McNealy, and an amazing braintrust of top executives and engineering talent. I completely believe it was absolutely worth it for much of Sun’s brainpower to be focused on listening to their customers – but honestly, I was surprised to see them actually do it.
  • About 6 months ago, we asked Sun for a product that would be incredibly difficult to design, but would dramatically change how we build datacenters. They nodded, said they’d look into it, and we crossed our fingers. Apparently we weren’t the only ones, because it’s coming – and it’s far better than we had initially asked for.
  • One of the attendees, who spends obscene, ungodly amounts of money with IBM, can’t even get engineering staff on the phone. Apparently, IBM has a big sales force who’s trained to buffer customers away from the engineers. Ugh. It’s an attitude like that which ensured IBM came in dead last in our vendor shoot-out. They literally didn’t want our business. Thank goodness Sun gets me in front of technical people when I need it.
  • I only read the dress code requirements after arriving. They said “Business” for the meetings. Since I don’t even own any “Business” clothes, that was a problem. T-shirt, Crocs, and a baseball cap it was! (And, of course, no-one cared. Or they were polite enough not to say anything🙂 )

All in all, I’m still feeling pretty dang good about our decision to go with Sun for our servers. An emphasis on innovation and willingness to listen to their customers is a winning strategy in my book.

Categories: datacenter
  1. December 13, 2007 at 1:26 pm

    Hey Don,

    Been reading your blog ever since you tested the T1000 server, and your posts afterwards of the Sun hardware you actually liked got me to look at Sun a little closer. Now we’re part of the Startup Essentials program and very excited to start taking advantage!

    We’re a video site and of course with video, we need a lot of storage. I don’t think there is anything even remotely close to the X4500 in terms of sheer density, and that’s first on our list of purchases under this program. The Startup Essentials price is just the 3-inch layer of icing on the cake.😉

    What got me to post a comment on here is this little blurb:

    “About 6 months ago, we asked Sun for a product that would be incredibly difficult to design, but would dramatically change how we build datacenters. They nodded, said they’d look into it, and we crossed our fingers. Apparently we weren’t the only ones, because it’s coming – and it’s far better than we had initially asked for.”

    So, ummm… what are you talking about? I’m sure it’s something you can’t really discuss publicly, as you probably would have said something in the post about specifics, but… Should I hold off on the X4500 purchase, or is it something completely different from the X4500? This purchase is based on a need of a big honkin’ storage beast, so if it doesn’t really fit into that category, then I’ll feel much more comfortable in going for the current X4500.

    Oh, and thanks for these posts about Sun. It helps a lot to know someone else’s experience with a big vendor like them, especially for a tiny little company like us. 🙂

    -Dan Bedford

  2. December 13, 2007 at 1:26 pm

    Your dress may have gotten you that top prize of your baseball caps on his blog post….

  3. December 13, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    @Dan: Great! Glad to hear someone’s finding my ramblings useful. 🙂

    As for the upcoming product, it’s not anything related to Thumper, so I think you’re safe. As you surmised, I can’t talk about it (though I’m dying to!), but it’s not a big honkin’ storage beast.

    @David: I believe you’re right. 🙂

  4. Readers that Listen
    December 13, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    > I’m forced to use, Comcast

    Give them the bird by buying the Dish. They are still in competition so they are reasonably helpful.

  5. December 13, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    Sweet, thanks Don!

    Now I’m wondering what the heck this thing could be… did Sun give any sort of timeline as to when info will become public? The stuff they have out now are already amazing datacenter products (Thumper, X4600, X4450, etc.), so I can’t even imagine what amazingness you could be talking about.

  6. Matt
    December 13, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    Please let us know when public information is released about the product. I have also been following your blog due to some of the detailed “ramblings” that you go into about your datacenter experiences.

  7. Tim
    December 13, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    So what is this new Sun server you talk about?

    Because I seriously can’t imagine it being any better than the ultra inexpensive 1U, 16 DIMM, 4 Hotswapable SiliconMechanics Dual Quad-core.


    You can right now get a:
    2 Quad-core proc
    32 GB ram
    4x 750GB (3TB)

    Now that’s a craaaaaaaaaaaazy deal.

    I hope SUN can beat that.

  8. Alexis
    December 13, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    Interesting comment about IBM. We’ve been buying a host of cheap IBM servers (x3550) to act as database nodes — dual-dual cores so that we don’t get killed by Oracle licenses — and our experience with IBM support has been so much more satisfactory than with Sun (we have a bunch of x4600M2 with Sun Spectrum platinum support). IBM shows up on time with parts while Sun sends the wrong replacement CPUs and does not get too worried about leaving us hanging dry.

    Yes, IBM products are not too well designed, the documentation is simply awful but since we buy essentially commodity hardware, getting quick support matters more than the exquisite feat of engineering.

  9. December 14, 2007 at 8:58 am

    Good post. I’m on the same side as you on all the issues of Sun’s diverse customer base you mention above. My experience with their customer service also mirrors yours. Once upon a time while at former employer (we were part of Startup Essentials) we ran into a particularly pernicious hardware bug on an E4500 we were using in production. Sun support was remarkably good to us, let us talk to actual engineers, and came out to replace the entire system board for free when that turned out to be the only way to solve the problem.

    Today, at another employer, the X4500 is at the top of my list as a solution to solve a coming storage crunch.

  10. December 14, 2007 at 11:14 am

    To Sun’s credit, this level of dialogue is part of their corporate DNA.

    I remember being invited, as an employee of a 25 person software company, to the SPARC launch. Bill Joy and Andy Bechtolsheim both did long sessions explaining the benefits of the new SPARC architecture. Both spent a great deal of time answering questions and soliciting feedback.

  11. ajfoul
    December 14, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    Steve is correct, it’s built-in. As long as we’re reminiscing… Long ago (’93/’94) I was practicing my pitch on an engineer at the Dutch Goose and noticed a guy at the next booth listening in on our conversation. The partitions between booths at the Goose are quite high and the eavesdropper was forced to cock is head to hear me, I recall being amused because the people he was with were obviously vying for his attention. Later as his party was getting ready to leave, the eavesdropper walks up to me with business card in hand… Scott McNealy. “Write in Java,” he says.

    Incidentally, I just dumped Comcast because they were unable to fix a months long issue with my digital (HD) TV service. Had only stayed with them because the modem was doing fine and I don’t watch that much TV. Lost the modem on Tuesday (along with all other service) exactly a month since the last visit from a very rude and incompetent tech which had only made the TV reception worse. Called support and politely humored the script reading fool right until the point he asked if I’d heard about their voice service. At that point I asked to have my account closed and after a few minutes of trying to convince me that they would get it fixed “in a few days,” he finally transfered me to a recorded message. I call back and get a new rep who apologizes and then starts in with “you can get service protection for $0.99/mo.” Stopped her mid-sentence to ask if she was serious and she replies that she can explain… “No, there is no way you can explain.” *click*

  12. December 17, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    Hi Don, I think the only part of your attire that *I* would have a problem with is the Crocs. Can’t stand ’em!

    That said, I recall attending a Sun Services internal conference a few years ago when Scott McNealy related this anecdote:

    One of the questions I was asked by a new staff member was about our corporate dress code: “What is Sun’s dress code? I haven’t seen anything mentioned about it”

    Scott replied that Sun did indeed have a corporate dress code: “You. Must. Dress.”

    Had us all in stitches – because it’s exactly what the attitude is. We wear what is appropriate for our daily environment, and don’t get stressed about it.

    Glad you enjoyed the event, and I’m even happier to find out that smugmug – which my sport-mad brother-in-law uses for showing us what he gets up to on his mountain bike – Sun kit.

  13. photobug
    December 18, 2007 at 12:19 am

    Don, I’m delighted and relieved to read your blog.

    Delighted, because I’ve been a SmugMug’ger for ~3 years and DGrin’ner for longer, and it’s great to know that you’re investing in great, cutting-edge equipment.

    Relieved, because I happen to also be a Sun employee and it’s good to know that fellow employees have been doing exactly what they were *supposed* to be doing by listening so closely to SmugMug’s needs. I’ve heard (non-photographers, yet!) “talking in the halls” about SmugMug, so word really does get passed around. Rapidly growing new businesses like SmugMug — regardless of size *today* — are vital to the future of our nation’s overall economy (and of course, as customers for any vendor, including Sun). If Sun listens when customers are small, it seems a good bet that it will still be listening when they grow much larger. And I fervently hope that SmugMug’s real growth ain’t yet begun.

    And BTW, congratulations on firing off support for (HD, yet!) *video* on SmugMug. What a class act🙂.

  14. December 26, 2007 at 10:13 am

    I am not surprised by this move from Sun. Ever since I started reading Jonathan’s excellent blog I feel that Sun seems to have its heart in the right place – trying to solve real world problems for customers.

    This blog post just reinforced my belief that Sun has the potential to be a great turn around story a few years from now.

  15. November 10, 2009 at 6:49 am


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