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Rising from the ashes

SunService makes a comeback

By Erica Liederman

October  1996
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Since breaking away from the Sun Microsystems mother ship over three years ago, SunService has redeemed its formerly sketchy reputation; earned respect, loyalty, and satisfaction from its customers; and gained a sense of independence and success. We examine the turnaround and hear from those who have experienced the change. (1,700 words)

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In an industry where chaos reigns, more often than not the more things change, the more they stay the same. The resulting corporate atmosphere could hardly be less conducive to learning from one's mistakes and making serious strides forward.

One organization that has managed to defy the chaos and become the leading provider of customer service in the Unix workstation market is SunService, a planet in Sun Microsystems's solar system of operating companies. In a 1995 IS satisfaction survey by Datamation, Sun was rated in the top 3 of 31 vendors in terms of service and support. Its record, however, has not always been so glowing.

The historical perspective
SunService came into being as an operating division of Sun Microsystems in July 1993. By then, Sun sales had exceeded the $3 billion mark. But all was not well at Sun. The high-end PC was making serious inroads into the technical workstation market. Furthermore, Sun's attempt to humanize and add functionality to its Unix OS -- redesigned and christened Solaris in 1991 -- proved, in its first release to be less than reliable. It had a nice graphical user interface. That was about all. And obtaining good service was, according to many, impossible.

There were reasons for the difficulty. For one thing, up until the time Sun spun off its operating divisions into distinct "planets," SunService was nothing more than a branch of Sun's sales organization. Sun simply did not hire enough service professionals.

"Anytime a sales guy has the choice of whether to invest in a new sales person, or invest in a service program, he chooses the sales route," said Tom Berghoff, director of support services marketing for SunService. "It's understandable; selling machines was their charter."

Another factor in Sun's difficulty providing service had to do with top management's 1991 decision to begin moving away from the technical high-end workstation market to the commercial market. For the most part, the company had had, up until the change of marketing strategy, the luxury of not paying software problems too much heed. Its reasoning, which was not entirely unfounded, was that Sun customers knew how to fix the bugs or at least create workarounds themselves. The academic and scientifically oriented "techie" market has a strong hacker ethic.

As far as hardware was concerned, not since the very earliest days at Sun (when the first Sun server rolled off the assembly line to a waiting crowd of excited spectators from press and industry sans an on-off switch) has there been significant complaint from any quarter about hardware reliability. Indeed, Sun farms out almost all of its hardware service contracts to third parties.

It was not until SunService became a distinct operating unit with its own charter and its own set of books that tackling of the software problems really began. Sun's cavalier approach had nearly lost it some high-volume contracts (more on that topic below). The time had come for a sea change.

In 1992, Larry Hambly, who had been at Sun since its first year in business (his employee number is 91) was appointed president of Sun's new SunService operating company. His charter: create a competitive, world-class Unix support organization that could offer top-level mission-critical professional support services, educational services, and 24 hour, 7-day user assistance. The new SunService organization would not focus on the break-fix business; instead, it would become a solution provider -- an organization that would work as a partner with large customers and VARs to solve customers' problems. There would be a multitude of service, education, and consulting programs to choose from, all tailored to the needs of the individual account. SunService would make solutions to problems it had already solved available to all customers in the form of access to databases or CD-ROMs that contained bug fixes, system patches, and technical information.

Today, the SunService tribe numbers 1,500 at 132 field sites in 44 countries. This represents a 40 percent growth from this time a year ago. In education, SunService claims it offered 150 courses last year at 100 campuses in 34 countries. About 50,000 students darkened SunService's doors last year.


Customer experiences
To substantiate SunService's claims of a tremendous turnaround in organization, policy and responsiveness to customers' problems, SunWorld Online spoke with two SunService customers, TRW Signal Integration Group in Sunnyvale, CA, and Hughes Aircraft Canada, located in Vancouver, British Columbia.

TRW's Signal Integration Group is the division of TRW that programs and then resells highly-secure workstation systems to the Department of Defense (DOD). It has been a Sun customer for ten years, and a SunService customer for four.

Bard Dunkelberger is instrument services manager for TRW's Signal Integration Group. His experiences with SunService for more than ten years are a case in point.

Said Dunkelberger: "Since 1992, we have had a terrific partnership with Sun. They have custom-tailored services to meet our needs. We wouldn't have another program." Before that, however, "...we were getting worried. Sun had a terrific product and no service. They nearly lost us. We had already kicked DEC out of the house. We were at a loss as to how to proceed with our equipment needs."

TRW's needs are not small. It has an installed base of more than 600 Sun workstations, ranging from IPXs to high-end Ultras. It purchases between 80 and 100 systems per year -- not counting those that it customizes, programs, and resells to the DOD.

"We finally confronted Sun directly through our sales rep and told them in no uncertain terms that they would have to change their ways," said Dunkelberger. "They got on it immediately. They started putting together players at the mid- and upper levels of SunService and engineering. It was a team effort. They put a competent person on site here -- a full-time, trained trouble-shooting consultant."

The results of SunService's efforts have been impressive. "We're able to solve 95 percent of any problems that arise now on-site. We keep kidding them [SunService reps] about how economical it is to have their organization here. Our costs for service have been reduced by nearly $1 million per year since they've gotten their program together. They've really turned their service around."

To make matters even better, Dunkelberger notices a vast improvement in the reliability of Solaris, which in itself obviates a good part of past difficulties. Said Dunkelberger: "We did an in-house questionnaire of Sun users here [at TRW] a few months ago. There were no dissatisfied users..."

Hughes Aircraft Canada
Hughes Aircraft set up its Vancouver business unit in 1993 to design and build a new automated world-wide air traffic control system in Canada. Earl Greer, development environment manager for information systems at Hughes Canada, moved from Hughes Aircraft in Fullerton, CA to Vancouver specifically to assist in the development of the Canadian Automated Air-traffic System (CAATS.)

Greer's organization supports about 200 developers and managers along with the requisite corporate infrastructure. In total, Hughes runs more than 100 Suns -- both servers and desktop systems. Hughes' installed base runs the gamut: at least 65 SPARCstation 4s, "a bunch" of SPARCstation 2s, LXs, IPXs, as well as SPARCstation 1051s and 2051s as servers for X terminals.

During the five-plus years of his tenure at Hughes Aircraft -- both in Fullerton and in Vancouver -- Greer has found the SunService and sales organization to have been "...almost always responsive." Said Greer: "We ourselves have been impatient at times; we wanted to install an Ultra 6000 here as soon as we could get it. While we were waiting, Sun lent us a 4000 at no charge as a backup.... We run Rational APEX software [an ADA development environment]. The 2000s were bogging us down because the software is such a [memory] hog."

According to Greer, SunService has been proactive when it comes to delivering service. When it had to be reactive, "...they've been available and found a way to get us going again. We have a good sales representative and good support."

Greer contrasts his experience with SunService with that of Hewlett-Packard. "We're delivering CAATs on HP equipment, and we've had no luck with HP service. They [HP's Vancouver office] sit across the parking lot from us. I can see their building from my window. They have no help desk for software problems...." Greer added: "I think our expectations [of HP] have been too high. The customer [the Canadian government's aviation authority] kept changing its mind about features they needed in CAATS. HP kept going off and writing new code. In the end, we had to throw years of work away because they had not sat down with the customer up front and determined exactly what components were essential to CAATS, what was non-essential but desirable, and what would be nice if there was time to build it."

The business of service
There is more to motivate SunService's success than just good customer relations and high levels of satisfaction. There is a huge amount of money to be made.

According to a G2 Research Inc. study done in 1995, the global opportunity for systems integration professional services is expected to grow from $67.9 billion in 1995 to $151.2 billion in 2000, an average annual growth rate of 17.4 percent. The system support services segment is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 23 percent for the same five-year period, which will represent, at the end of 1999, potential revenues of $35.9 billion. By far the fastest growing of all open systems service segments, the operations services area, is predicted to grow at a rate of 27 percent per year, which represents $11.4 billion in potential revenue by the year 2000. And then there is training: the external education and training services marketplace for open systems was $11.4 billion in 1994. This figure is expected to grow to $14.69 billion by 1999.

To date, SunService manages more Unix-based workstations worldwide than any other information outsourcing vendor. And the staggering increase in workstation sales worldwide -- 24 percent since 1993 -- has proven that any fears Sun might have had about loss of market share to high-end PCs are, as yet, unfounded. For SunService, adversity proved to be a challenge. What was once a faltering division has turned into a successful business unit. Said Tom Berghoff, "...were it a company on its own outside of the Sun Microsystems universe, it would be more than profitable."

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About the author
Erica Liederman ( is a free-lance writer based in North Fork, CA. Reach Erica at

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