Sunburst: The Ascent of Sun Microsystems

Reviewed on , book by Mark Hall

It seems that many of the best systems engineer have in common they worked at Sun. This has made me intrigued by the history of the company for years. Unfortunately, there’s little available about that environment and its history. This book was a bit difficult to procure since it’s no longer in print. It shines light on Sun’s ascent in the 1980-1990 (it was written in 1990). Book’s fairly dry at times (I skimmed and skipped many sub-chapters) as it walks through the minutiae of e.g. a marketing campaign. It’s packed thick with acronyms of technology that has since been forgotten. This is, at times, interesting, but the book’s aged poorly in that respect. I took some detours to learn about these dead technologies, but certainly not all (the Wikipedia articles, too, would be too dry on all of these topics). It tells a story of Sun, but it does little to elevate above the company to draw larger lessons. It paints some picture of the personalities involved, but it hardly goes out of its way to illustrate e.g. Joy and Bechtelsheim. On top of that, the authors are not particularly good story-tellers. It reads more as a chronological list of facts than a fascinating account of one of the coolest technology companies of all time. Sun won in the 80s because they advocated for standards; Ethernet, for example, over something hyper-optimized for 1 particular system. The standards may be less efficient, but much more portable.

Unfortunately, corporate computer history is not particularly well-covered, so as I dig in more, I start to fear this is the type of writing I’ll encounter…