Hardware Startup Attracts High-Powered Sun Talent

Shahin Kahn, a VP at Sun who left the high-end hardware vendor after eight years, has joined Azul Systems Inc., a company formed two years ago by Stephen DeWitt, another former VP at Sun. Kahn, whose computer-industry resum dates back more than 20 years and includes stints at Cray Research, Floating Point Systems, and Cornell University, last month became chief marketing officer for Azul, the company will announce Thursday.

Azul plans to bring to market next year servers and middleware it says can handle large loads of software written in the Java and Microsoft .Net programming environments. Azul also has designed its own chips, with instruction sets optimized for running apps written with those technologies.

Kahn says he left Sun for the chance to join a young company that's growing. Sun, meanwhile, has seen its sales decline sharply in recent years and has lost money as customers turn to lower-cost alternatives to its powerful computers.

"Bill Joy once said that 'innovation happens elsewhere,' " Kahn says, referring to Sun's co-founder and former chief scientist, who left the company last year. "That's certainly true in this industry."

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Azul plans to start testing its products with a few customers this year and ship its servers during the first half of next year. IT departments will be able to pool those computers easily to run Java apps; the ability to run .Net software will come in later generations of Azul products. The company is also designing its own microprocessors, which will be compatible with common programming tools, Kahn says. The technology can help IT managers cut down on the number of servers they run, he adds.

At Sun, Kahn worked with Azul president and CEO DeWitt, who joined the company in 2000 after the Sun bought his former company, Cobalt Networks Inc., for $2 billion. The acquisition gave Sun an entre into low-priced servers that run the Linux operating system, but Sun later had to write down the value of the acquisition.

Kahn's most recent job at Sun was VP of the company's high-performance technical computing business. Before that, he served as Sun's "chief competitive officer," a role one industry analyst says wasn't suited to its times. "He stepped into this attack-dog role just at a time when the IT market was in free-fall, and those sort of loud, partisan, competitive attacks were the last thing that customers wanted to hear coming out of Sun," wrote Gordon Haff, an analyst at IT research firm Illuminata, in an E-mail. "A repeat of that script would be to Azul's detriment, but with that in mind, Shahin could be a nice addition."

That may not be an issue in Kahn's new job. Azul is working closely with IBM and BEA Systems and talking to Microsoft about possible cooperation, he says. The company's products take advantage of new industry standards, he says. "It's not a hard sell at all."