Every Customer Visit is a Lesson.

I had an interesting discussion this week with the CIO of one of the largest companies in America. A sales exec and I met with him at his facility, and were joined by his lead datacenter lieutenant. To get our dirty laundry on the table, this was a company that put us on the “sunset” list (an especially painful pun) two years ago, in deference to HP and IBM. No use hiding that – two years back, our revenues were declining, we had some pretty horrendous PR problems, and those two competitors were doing a great job creating anxiety in our customer base.

And just like getting back to Wall Street, we’re driving hard into the market – all parts, including behind enemy lines.

The customer started by telling us what our competitors had been saying about Sun, our platforms, and our future over the past two years. HP told him Sun was going out of business. IBM told him the future was all about linux, and that Sun was all about lock-in. Both competitors expressed a sympathetic concern that we weren’t “going to make it.” How charitable. The CIO wanted to know why they were wrong. This was going to be one of those “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” sessions. And we got right into it.

He told me consolidation was his number one priority. That’s why they were standardizing on HP. I asked “Which systems?” He responded “their enterprise systems.” I asked, “Itanium?” Wondering why they’d introduce a fork (new apps, new OS, new skills, and the expense of porting) if they were trying to consolidate platforms. He said they weren’t interested in Itanium. “No way, we’re going with PA-RISC.” I asked, “But isn’t that an end of life’d platform?” Silence. “Well, yes, I guess it would be.” How times change. Maybe HP had a specialty service for dead platform consolidation.

I asked which OS they planned on running on their end of life’d PA-RISC systems (ok, I knew the answer). He said, “HP-UX.” I said, “But isn’t that on its way toward end of life, too?” He asked his datacenter exec, who said, “yeah, they’ve been dropping their roadmap, we’re pretty unhappy.” And the ball point pen came out as the CIO started taking notes.

And then I asked about IBM. And apparently they’d just been with OSDL, who’d evangelized that with open source, there was no lock in. When I pointed out that OSDL was led by a 17-year IBM veteran who should know better, the CIO started laughing as if I was joking. So I suggested they read the OSDL website, and revisit some software basics. IBM told him they couldn’t get locked in with linux. And I said, “nice vision, but Red Hat has you locked already.” The CIO shrugged, “nah, it’s open source.” My response, “Have you tried replacing what you’re deploying?” He asked his lieutenant, who said “we can’t get vendors to qualify to any distribution other than Red Hat. We don’t have a choice. He’s right.” IBM, up to its old tricks again.

How times change. Or not.

HP and IBM, were now evangelizing abandoned products and proprietary lock-in.

So then we got talking about Sun. When I pointed out that with Solaris 10’s logical partiitioning, known as containers, we could unlock the 80% un-utilized capacity on their thousands of Sun systems, he immediately assigned the action item to go start a proof of concept – this represented the potential for tens of millions (yes, tens of millions) in savings this coming fiscal year. Solaris 10 is found money for customers – and LPARs are a familiar concept to those who run mainframes (and want that functionality on all their servers, not just the dinosaurs). So now it’s in Solaris, independent of hardware – ours, or the other guys. Same price (free).

When I told him we had a migration practice with tons of HP customers leaving behind their end of life platforms for Solaris, we had another proof of concept to start. And when I told him about our mainframe rehosting programs, with reams of customers that feel burned by IBM’s failed “just run linux on your mainframe” folly, he was focused – doubly so when I told him he could run all his Red Hat apps in a Solaris container and pay nothing to Red Hat. While improving performance, and driving utilization. More note taking.

And then we reviewed Sun’s open source plans. And that we’ll totally indemnify our customers for all intellectual property. With no clever carve outs (eg, on anyone’s hardware, not just Sun’s). Open means open. And that the closed source companies sowing FUD about open source are being completely hypocritical. Just as hypocritical as the open source companies claiming we’re in a new era of indemnity. We’re not. Companies should stand behind their IP, independent of license agreement. Companies that don’t stand behind their IP are just lip sync’ing.

And why can we do all this? Because while HP and IBM are busy exiting businesses and throwing fear around to confuse customers, we’ve been focusing on innovation and competitive differentiation. And a decision that went against Sun is now on its way to being revisited. And HP and IBM are going to be in for some uncomfortable questioning. The winds of change are blowing.

But this does prove a point. Prior to this meeting, our biggest issue at the account was a perception issue. The CIO had as much as written us off. Being blunt. And how are we solving that issue today? For now, we’re handling it one customer at a time, one review at a time, one win at a time. It’s not easy, but all 32,000 of us, especially those in the field, are earning our way back the only way we know how. Relentless pursuit. The Energizer bunny looks comatose by comparison. Keep going, folks – the market’s wide open, and the customers are listening. Not just to our answers, but to our questions, too.

And with some of our strongest innovations ever in the pipeline, across every segment of our business, it’s time to play offense. Even eclipses have coronas.


ps. I heard a rumor today that Steve Milunovich is going to work at Gartner. Whaddya think? 50% confidence? 🙂

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