The Friday Interview: Roland Noonan, Horizon Open Systems

4 Nov 2005

When Roland Noonan (pictured) took up his current position as managing director of Horizon Open Systems (HOS) in July 2002, the company was in the throes of the technology recession. As the country partner ie, outsourced sales and marketing arm, of Sun Microsystems in Ireland, its fortunes has mirrored those of the Silicon Valley computing giant. From the mid-Nineties onwards it rose to dizzy heights on the back of the internet boom, then fell like a brick when the tech market crashed in early 2000.

While the crash did serious damage to the internet not to mention the image of the technology sector in general – to the extent that it’s now easier to get on to an Irish third-level technology course than on to an arts one – Noonan staunchly defends the internet as having delivered on its promise.

“People talk about the dotcom bust like people stopped using the internet. The internet is more pervasive today than it’s ever been. It touches every aspect of everyone’s lives. It’s just there; people don’t think about it. People talk about ‘the internet days’ – these are the internet days,” he insists.

It sounds like fighting talk but Noonan does have a point. Today, some five years after the so-called end of the internet, some of the biggest, most valuable companies in the world are, guess what, dotcoms such as Amazon, Google, Yahoo! and eBay.
Moreover, Noonan believes that, despite its current woes, Sun’s eternal vision – “The network is the computer” – is as relevant as ever. The popularity of the internet has proven the value of an open system that’s not controlled by one organisation, he argues.

“The internet is the computer. There’s no argument about that. You’re talking about possibly billions of devices connected to the network. Every mobile phone is Java enabled and why? Because it’s an open industry standard that’s not owned by anybody. That’s what Sun’s vision is: to work on open standards and compete on innovation and implementation. That’s the only way you can bring everyone into the net. It’s not going backwards.”

Yet while the internet has clearly become a central feature of business, the next logical step – the network being the computer – has yet to materialise in any serious way. In general, organisations still buy hardware and software in the same old way and don’t seem tempted by the ‘utility computing’ model of buying IT resources from a third party.

Yet a recent survey commissioned by HOS seemed to suggest the contrary: that Irish business is interested in utility computing. In the report, Can Utility Computing Promises Deliver Value Today? conducted by market research firm iReach, two thirds of Irish executives favoured a pay-as-you-go approach to IT resources, saving money on servers or storage hardware that are not used to capacity.

If the idea of a computing grid is compelling for many firms why have more of them not embraced it? It is primarily because they believe – incorrectly, in Noonan’s view – that there are still technology issues to be resolved.

“Utility computing is not a technology issue,” he asserts. “It can be offered now. That model is in place. But although some industries such as oil and gas have adopted it and can see the benefits of it, most people are still confused because they think it is a technology issue. So it’s really a cultural step – a mindset shift – that needs to occur.”

He adds: “Computing is similar to electricity: everyone builds out their own generator to deal with the maximum amount they are going to need. What needs to happen is an aggregation of demand and a grid created whereby you can both use from the grid and you can feed into it. The grid is there – the power stations are built – and the aggregation of demand will follow. The hurdle people have to get over is believing they need their own power station.”

Despite this reticence, the concept is taking root, almost by default, says Noonan, who argues that a form of utility computing is already in place in most Irish organisations – even if it’s not in the conventional sense of computing power and applications being drawn from third-party servers over the internet.

“If you look at some of the largest IT installations in the country, such as the banks and government departments, which maintain traditional data centres for their own use and you go in and look at what their users are using for their web search engine, you’ll probably find it’s Google. Now, did AIB implement Google? No. Did the IT director decide that AIB’s strategic search engine is Google? No. It’s a pervasive utility computing model – the network is the computer.”

Noonan believes the fact that applications such as Google are being widely used though they are not supported by the IT department means the utility computing ‘penny is starting to drop’ in a lot of places. “These things are starting to happen; the mindset is beginning to change,” he insists.

Although no HOS customer is yet using Sun technology in a utility fashion, Noonan says he expects “many of our customers to move to this service within the next 12 to 18 months”.

Noonan generally believes it is important that Sun, whose research and development spending has been held at roughly US$2bn a year despite the downturn, is seen as an innovation leader. He believes it is a critical component of what it offers. “Sun is one of the few systems companies out there that does its own hardware, software, and operating system,” he points out.

The company’s new product line up includes the release of Galaxy enterprise servers, StarOffice 8, Sun Fire E20k and E25k servers and the Java integration suite.

Sun has also been busy on the acquisitions and alliances front this year, having acquired the StorageTek computer storage company and got into bed with Google in a deal aimed at spreading and developing each other’s software. In the first instance, users will be able to download the Google Toolbar along with Java downloads.

The link-up with Google is an excellent fit, says Noonan, who believes Google and Sun “share a very similar vision of the internet” as something that should be promoted and expanded, rather than controlled.

It is a vision that he also shares. “Nobody can control the internet. Nobody will be able to control it and nobody should try to. It’s impossible; it’s like trying to control the oceans.”

By Brian Skelly