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Q&A: McNealy defends Sun reliability, personal privacy views

By Don Tennant
November 27, 2001 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - BURLINGTON, MASS. -- During a visit to his company's offices here today, Sun Microsystems Inc. Chairman and CEO Scott McNealy met with Computerworld's news editor for a candid discussion of issues ranging from how Sun dealt with a serious server reliability problem to the ire he has raised among privacy advocates over his stance on national ID cards. Excerpts from the interview follow:

Q: We reported last year about the problem with the external memory cache on UltraSPARC IIs that was causing a lot of Ultra Enterprise servers to crash. Is that something you're still grappling with, or is it history?

We're no longer buying IBM SRAM [static random-access memory]. They were the biggest source of the problem for us. They knew about it before, and they didn't tell us. I actually interviewed an employee [who formerly worked at IBM] -- I saw his resume. And I said, "You knew about this?" He said, "Oh yeah. A year ago IBM stopped using this SRAM because there are alpha particle problems, and the soft error rate is high." Imagine that; we didn't get told about it. But IBM sure made a big point of telling all of our customers about it a year and a half ago. But we don't have that issue anymore. We designed IBM out of that and put [error checking and correcting logic] across the entire cache architecture.

Q: Are you fully confident that your new Sun Fire 15K server is free of this whole memory cache problem?

Scott McNealy, Chairman and CEO at Sun Microsystems
Scott McNealy, Chairman and
CEO at Sun Microsystems
A: We designed all of that stuff out, yeah. In fact, all of our old products we've upgraded to mirrored SRAM. It handles it on the fly, and the problem went away. We're exceeding all of our design specs on all of our servers right now.

Q: So now that IBM is out, who supplies your SRAM?

Sony [Corp.] and a couple others. You just go find suppliers who treat you with integrity and provide a quality product and good price/performance. It was our fault. We didn't screen the SRAM for soft error rates.

Q: Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM have recently lowered their Unix server prices to compete more aggressively against Sun. Do you see a Unix server price war coming?

There [already] is one. No lie, it's a two-company short list situation right now -- only IBM and Sun. I cannot tell you the last time I ran into HP as a legitimate competitor. It's been a year and a half since I've run into Compaq [Computer

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