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SunEast: In Sweet New England

What is Sun brewing in Chelmsfold, MA? Everything!

By Michael Jay Tucker

June  1996
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Sun Microsystems' largest remote office is in New England. What is the quintessential Silicon Valley company doing in the land of haddock and cod, where the Cabots speak only to Lodges, and the Lodges speak only to God? (2,700 words)

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Sun Microsystems has many attractions for a potential employee. Not least of these is its locations. Sun just tends to have its offices in fascinating places... like Silicon Valley, where fortunes and history are made daily... and Grenoble, France, where art and culture combine... and Austin, where the cowboys ride to Willie Nelson concerts... and Chelmsford, MA... and Linlithgow Scotland, where golf was born --

Whoa. Back that one up a tad. Chelmsford, MA?

Well, yes. It's a suburb of Boston, MA. You know? That sorta funny city that not's part of Canada but seems like it oughta be? The one that just across the river from MIT? Well, Chelmsford is a few miles West of that. And the town is home to the "Chelmsford Campus," the home of Sun-East.

It's no little installation. "We have 900 employees of Massachusetts," said Phil Rosenzweig, vice president of engineering, PC Networking, for SunSoft. "And, we actually plan to grow. We're adding staff."

Every single one of the diverse operating units within Sun -- the Planets -- is represented at the Campus. Sun Microsystems, SunSoft, Sun Laboratories, all are present there. SunExpress, Sun's aftermarket arm, is headquartered in Chelmsford. Indeed, the Chelmsford Campus is the largest Sun site outside of California. "We pretty much dwarf everything else," Rosenzweig said.

But, why?

Why should Sun, that creature of Silicon Valley and California company par excellence, be here? Thousands of miles away from home, in terms of space, and light years away in terms of business culture?

The answer to that is private and personnel.

That is not a typo.

Plaza and PCs
First, what is in Chelmsford? Pretty much everything. "Every division that Sun has, has people here," Rosenzweig said. "Sun Microsystems Computer Co., SunSoft -- us -- SunService, SunLabs... you name it."

It is also the HQ of SunExpress, Sun's aftermarket supplier. "We have one of the most complete product lines in the business," said Dorothy Terrell, President of SunExpress. "We can sell you just about anything you could need for your Sun itself... except, of course, the workstation itself."

SunExpress is a phone sales, and more recently, an online sales operation. You can buy from it anything from software to cables. The company's staff in Chelmsford support sales in the United States and Canada. It also has remote offices in Europe and Japan.

SunExpress is an oddity in the Unix workstation business. None of the other major system vendors has an aftermarket sales group at all, much less a whole sub-division devoted to it. The organization has also brought the sort of technologies and sales techniques to Unix systems which, before, were found only in consumer products and PC sales.

For example, its European office, in the Netherlands, supports multi-lingual telesales operations. "A customer will call from any of the countries in Europe," Terrell said. "They feel as if they're making a local call. Actually, that call rings in Holland. Before the phone picks-up, it shows where that call is coming from. And the operator answers in the appropriate language."

In terms of technology, meanwhile, the Chelmsford Campus is perhaps best known for its software... and in particular, for its PC-to-Unix solutions. It is here, for instance, PC NFS was first developed in 1986, exactly ten years ago. It is also, now, where SunSoft works on such things as Wabi, PC networking, and the parts of Solstice which have to do with network management. "Our mission is to connect PC environments into the network," Rosenzweig said.

But then, Chelmsford has a unique understanding of Intel-based systems. It has a common history with them.

It built one.

Roadrunner, Apache, and the long goodbye
"We opened the campus in 1985," remembers Rosenzweig. "Our principal mission in '85 and '86 was to build the 386i."

The Sun 386i may have been the best Intel 80386 Unix machine ever built. It has a cult-like following of loyal users who buy, sell, swap, and pamper their machines with all the ardor of hot rod enthusiasts at a heat. "Its codename was `The Roadrunner,'" Rosenzweig said. "People were proud of it."

They had a right to pride. The 386i had its critics -- scientific and technical users, for instance, complained about what they felt to be its anemic performance in such areas as floating point performance -- but for many users it provided a robust Sun operating system (in those days, SunOS) in a sleek, inexpensive package. In many ways, it prefigured what SunSoft is trying to do today with Solaris for Intel.

There was also a prototype 486i. "It's code name was `Apache,'" said Rosenzweig. The Apache was never to be shipped, though its performance was said to be superb. Rumor has it that the system "ran circles" around the first generation SPARCstations.

Rosenzweig wouldn't confirm that, though he said it wouldn't surprise him. "An Apache was my first machine here. I thought it was cool."

It was also doomed. Just as Apache saw the light of day, Sun standardized on SPARC. "It died in 1989-90 when Scott [McNealy] decided, and rightly so, that the company should have a single processor architecture," said Rosenzweig.

SPARC's success since then, and Sun's success with it, seems to show that McNealy's decision may have been draconian, but it was also right. After the mid-80s, Intel architectures would fall behind the RISC for years. Only recently, with new versions of the chip, like Pentium Pro, and new operating systems, like Solaris, have Intel-based devices been able to present themselves as genuine alternatives to RISC workstations.


Of Skunkworks and the Feds
But, why did Sun come to Massachusetts to build its 386i? And, once the x86-line was gone, why did it choose to remain?

The answer to those questions depends on who you ask. For some, it's all about customers. "There are lot of Sun users on the East Coast," said Alex Newman, who should know. He's the executive director of the Sun User Group. "Just consider the demographics for SUG members. For us, New England is second only to California."

In fact, he said, New England provides a platform from which to reach a great number of different kinds of customers. "Sun has a tremendous base here. There are federal users, and military users, and users at educational sites."

And, for that matter, there's Sun User Group, which is based not far from Chelmsford, in the town of Brookline, MA. It was, said Newman, something of an accident. "We were looking for a temporary home," he said, in 1990. "We sublet space in the office of Barry Shein, who was then on the board of directors." Shein is the president of Software Tool & Die, a software consultancy and Internet/Web access provider.

It so happened that Software Tool & Die was in Brookline. "We liked the building and stayed," said Newman. "If Barry had been in Austin, we'd be there now."

Then, too, there's the issue of the original 386i. "Chelmsford was a Skunkworks," said Dennis Daudelin, president of Aurora Technologies, Waltham, MA. Aurora is a system integrator and aftermarket firm active in the Sun market. Daudlin was at Sun East in its formative days. "I was the Third Party marketing manager," he said. "At a time when there were only five of us."

The 386i was a radical departure for Sun. It required new technology, new designs, and even new approaches to old problems. It had to be a device which was almost completely unrelated to the kind of systems that Sun had sold before, and the kind of thinking it had practiced. "You don't do that," said Daudelin, "at HQ." Sun, he concluded, chose to do it at Chelmsford.

The miracle that went sour
But what may be Massachusetts' biggest attraction may have nothing to do with Skunks, or customers. Rather, it has to do with employees. "The other day," said Daudelin, "I had some executives from a company in New York drop by my office. They asked if you could get talented employees here in Massachusetts. I responded by picking up fifty or so of the unsolicited resumes that have come through the mail in the last few weeks. Then, I simply dropped them on the table in front of us."

The Boston area, and Massachusetts in general is rich with engineering talent. That's partly because of the schools. Higher education is an industry in the state. There's MIT, of course, but in addition there's Boston University, Boston College, Harvard, the and dozens of others within an hour's drive of the city. Further west, there's the Amherst-Northampton-Holyoke triangle, with Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and others. Just south of the state, is Brown University, or go a few miles north, and you have Dartmouth.

And, every year, these schools produce yet another crop of graduates. Sun hires a lot of them.

But, there's something more. There is the remains of a busted miracle.

It is difficult to remember today, when computing is so thoroughly identified in the popular mind as a west coast industry, but Boston was once the capitol of American computing. It was American's first Silicon Valley. It was the place where computing had its first great post-IBM mainframe boom.

It was here, along the Route 128 Belt, that the minicomputer makers had their great flowering in the 1970s and early '80s. Digital Equipment Corp. led the charge, and was followed soon after by Prime and Data General and dozens of other, smaller firms.

And, it was here too that, in some ways, the workstation industry was born. It was not far from Sun's own Chelmsford installation that Apollo Corp. first widely promoted the concept of a large screened, networked, powerful personal system for the high end user. Computervision, shortly after, would develop with the same technologies for CAD applications.

Apollo and ComputerVision weren't alone. There were other Massachusetts companies -- some of whom are now completely forgotten -- that made serious attempts to enter the workstation market. Find a Sun Microsystems veteran, one who was with the company in the middle '80s, slip him or her a drink or two, and he or she will recall that at the time, one of Sun's most dreaded rivals was MassComp, a Boston-area company which made a business out of A-to-D conversion hardware and then sold systems that were competitive with the Sun 3.

Even when PCs came on the scene, Boston was not without players. Lotus Development Corp. was in Cambridge, MA. For nearly a decade, 123 was the definitive PC application, and Lotus was the definitive software start-up.

This golden age, the Massachusetts Miracle as it was called, turned to tin-foil in the late 1980s. With the exception of a few remaining DEC VAXes, and the inexplicably popular IBM AS/400, minicomputers went the way of the Dodo. The companies which made them suffered accordingly. They downsized brutally -- as did DEC and DG. Or they were acquired by others -- the way that Apollo became Hewlett Packard's technical workstation division.

Others had curious destinies indeed. ComputerVision was acquired by Prime in a brutal take-over. But, then Prime faltered. ComputerVision reemerged from the belly of its acquirer, and today is still in business. Prime, meanwhile, vanished entirely.

But the sum result of all this was that the Boston area was flooded with well-trained, seasoned, highly qualified, unemployed or under-employed personnel. "It has meant that Boston is just fantastically rich in terms of people," said Aurora's Daudlin. "I, for instance, was at DEC and DG before I was at Sun. "

"I was an employee of DEC myself," noted SunExpress's Terrell. She attributes the Chelmsford office to Scott McNealy himself. "He wanted to take take advantage of some of the expertise on the East Coast," she said. "There were a number companies that were downsizing. And those companies weren't just letting go people who weren't performing. They were letting go of some highly talented, core people. Scott felt we could take advantage of that talent."

No one said that Sun came East with a vulture-like intention of feasting on the dead -- "We're not an outplacement center," said SunSoft's Rosenzweig -- but clearly the state of the labor pool in Boston was a central, if not the dominant reason that Sun created its Chelmsford office. "The local market has a tremendous competence in computers," Rosenzweig said. "I don't believe there is any sort of technical skill that you can't find here."

It ain't easy
So, New England lured Sun east with its talent and its logistics. But, is SunEast viable in the long run? A remote office is, after all, a remote office. It is removed from the centers of power. And there have been consistent and repeated reports of serious friction between East and West. Off the record, current and former employees claim that at times Sun Central seemed to regard Sun East as a dangerous competitor rather than a local office.

"There was tremendous tension," said one such individual, who was involved with the creation of the 386i. "It was really fantastic. Like, when we built the '386, here we were, an Intel operation in a Moto[rola] company. We got a lot of 'over-my-dead-body' from the Castro Street Crowd."

SunSoft's Rosenzweig admits, openly, that tension between the two organizations exists, but argues that the stories of a covert East-West Cold War are vastly exaggerated. "There's an East Coast-Wast Coast rivalry in any large company," he notes. "Sure, there have been episodes where negative things happened. There were periods when we were reorganizing and there was confusion over where the control points were going to be. But, Sun is a team-oriented company. I think things are much better than you've heard."

As evidence, he cites the fact that SunEast people tend to stay at the Chelmsford campus. They don't find their career dead-ending just because they're on the wrong coast. We have had a few people go West," he said. "But most of the time, people stay here. There's lots of room for career growth."

What sort of career growth? "Well, we have Jeff Arnold, who has just become the first Distinguished Engineer on the East Coast," he said. "And I'm the first vice president of engineering outside of California."

Not that it was a breeze for him to get there. "It is possible to get to the highest levels of the company here. Not easy, but it is possible," he said. Then he adds, "I'm not saying it is any easier on the West Coast."

Moreover, the Chelmsford campus is growing. SunExpress, for instance, is moving increasingly into electronic commerce. It has just announced Sun Plaza, a service by which SunExpress customers can make their purchases via the World Wide Web -- something that was particularly easy for the company to do at Chelmsford. "This campus is a major center of the SWAN -- the Sun Wide Area Network," SunExpress's Terrell said. "And, as we move forward with Sun Plaza, we're going to be adding servers and staff."

Ask the winter
There are times when even the most dedicated partisans of New England wonder if the place is worth the price. Like, for instance, in the middle of a New England blizzard. "That's what we were all asking ourselves this winter," SunExpress's Terrell joked. "Why aren't we in California?"

But, then, there's Spring and Fall, when its easy to fall in love with Boston. And Sun seems comfortably settled in the area. "The key to success for remote sites," said SunSoft's Rosenzweig, "is to have, and to interface with the home office at the very highest level."

SunEast seems to have managed that. It has, in form of Scott McNealy, a direct link to Sun's core. "Scott has been adamant that we be here," Terrell said.

And, with PC-connections, and electronic commerce, it has a mission. "Where is it going?" Rosenzweig asked. "It's going up. Up, in the sense that the Chelmsford campus is going to rise in importance in the company."

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About the author
Boston-based Michael Jay Tucker ( has written about computers in one form or another for more than one decade. He's been on staff at publications ranging from Mini-Micro Systems to SunExpert, and authored or co-authored several technical books. He's also the author of the weekly column, explosive-cargo, which is distributed via e-mail to more than 2,000 subscribers, and editor of the Webzine, Explosive Cargo, at Reach Michael at

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