McNealy sees Sun's past in IoT's future

The former Sun chief is advising RTI, an IoT communications company, and doesn't miss being 'a CEO in a pinata'

When Sun Microsystems said, "The network is the computer," it might have been talking about the Internet of Things, which was little more than an idea at the time. Today, more machines than ever are talking to other machines, and computing is being distributed across far-flung networks.

Onetime Sun CEO Scott McNealy sees some of the legendary company's vision coming to fruition in an IoT "data bus" from a small Silicon Valley outfit called Real-Time Innovations. On Tuesday, McNealy became the first member of RTI's Advisory Board.

RTI's data bus is middleware for delivering the right information at the right time to all the people and systems that need it. The software runs on meshed computing nodes that can be a small as a microcontroller, and it uses several kinds of network connections to make sure the data gets through.

It's the next generation of "the network is the computer," McNealy said at an RTI press lunch last week. "Sun was just way too early for a lot of this stuff," he said.

Large industrial IoT environments like power plants and hospitals use databases to store information that's already been collected, but they also need a data bus for the new bits that are constantly emerging, RTI President and CEO Stan Schneider said. In modern IoT architectures, that data has to be sent to many different systems for automated operations.

For example, RTI's middleware runs in a 480-turbine wind farm where all the turbines need to remain synchronized or they may catastrophically fail, he said. The data bus makes sure that exactly 100 times per second, a report is sent from each turbine so management systems can know about and respond to any problems.

Other applications may use that same data for long-term modeling or forecasting. RTI's data bus makes sure the real-time turbine readings get to all the applications that need them, right on time.

Instead of relying on centralized servers or a single network, the data bus is made up of software nodes that can run on various kinds of hardware, down to microcontrollers with just 128KB of RAM. The nodes are linked by multiple networks, which may include fiber, cellular and satellite.

This redundant mesh helps ensure that if one piece of the infrastructure fails, the information still gets where it needs to go, Schneider said.

RTI first used the data bus concept on U.S. Navy ships to prevent ship-wide failures like what happened on the destroyer USS Cole in 2000 when a terrorist's bomb blew a hole in its hull.

After the deadly bombing in the port of Aden in Yemen, the Cole didn't sink. But all its systems failed, because the bomb had destroyed a server running critical middleware, Schneider said. By spreading out middleware functions and using multiple networks to send data around a ship, RTI now helps to prevent this kind of failure, he said.

The same idea applies in other fields. Electrical grids, automated vehicles and arrays of medical sensors in hospitals also need a guaranteed flow of on-time data, he said.

RTI's middleware can run on 90 different operating systems. In that sense, it's like a JVM (Java virtual machine) for IoT, McNealy said.

Sun would put JVMs on everything with a processor and memory to provide a common way of running applications. RTI does the same for a common way to share and publish data and notifications, he said.

McNealy is advising the company partly because he likes companies that do a lot of research. Of RTI's 150 employees, half are doing research and development. (Half of those are in Spain, where the company's CTO is connected to the University of Granada.)

But the role is also a break from the past for McNealy, who is also co-founder and executive chairman of the digital marketing platform company Wayin.

"It fits my employment model, which is advisor, not CEO in a pinata," McNealy said. "Waking up every morning for decades wondering where the two-by-four was going to hit me ... was fun for a while, but 'been there, done that.'"

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