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Eric Bruno

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Sun Could've Been Cisco

April 30, 2009

With the pending acquisition by Oracle, I can't help but be reminded that Sun could have been more than it is today. When Sun released its early Sun workstations, and then NFS, it pushed the idea of distributed computing with affordable hardware based on standards. This eliminated other proprietary solutions at the time (i.e. Apollo). But Sun missed out on the big networking picture.

In 1984, two people working at Stanford University created multi-protocol routing software that ran on -- wait for it -- Sun workstations. Inspired by this development, some people within Sun thought that Sun should push a version of their workstation as a router platform. Or, alternatively, they could have marketed any Sun workstation as a routing platform. However, it was dismissed as routers were considered mundane network plumbing.

If Sun had executed on this idea, it may have grown into what Sun has become today (a $14 billion/year company), as well as Cisco (a $39 billion/year company). In fact, Vinod Khosla admitted that missing out on Cisco was one of his biggest missteps at Sun. This was described in the book, High Noon, written by Karen Southwick. 

That's why I was really surprised when I first heard that IBM was interested in acquiring Sun, and when that fell apart, Oracle. I was really surprised that there was no public news of Cisco being interested in acquiring Sun, especially since Cisco recently announced their desire to get into the server business. Perhaps they just genuinely weren't interested in Sun, or their interest was never made public. We may never know.

However, I just can't help but reflect how this one misstep in 1984 has ultimately resulted in Cisco's meteoric rise as a true force in the tech world, and Sun's demise as it gets swallowed by Oracle. If it weren't for Java, my opinion is that Sun's demise would have come ten years sooner than it has. I'm not sure there's much of a point to all of this, except the realization that even a single decision can make a world of difference. As Scott McNealy once famously said, "The best decision is the right one, the second best decision is the wrong one. The worst decision is no decision."

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