Sun opens iForce to strengthen partnerships

The new iForce Solutions Center that Sun Microsystems Inc. officials opened earlier this month is located in an unassuming office building in Northern Virginia, not far from the always bustling Capital Beltway. Despite its dynamic-sounding name, from the outside, it looks like a typical office in a typical office park.

But Sun officials are expecting the center to rise above its seemingly conventional surroundings and elevate the company's profile with partners and customers. Although the center has just opened, officials report interest and early users.

The center provides an array of Sun servers, platforms and other technologies. The idea is to allow partner companies, such as application developers, to test their products in a variety of combinations with Sun's hardware, other software and a range of operating systems.

Use of the center is free to partners on a space-available basis, said Kathy Sebuck, the center's manager. It joins Sun's existing network of iForce centers worldwide. Located in the company's federal headquarters, the Northern Virginia center is the first to target a specific market segment.

The center benefits small-business officials who can't afford to buy the full range of equipment that the center gives them access to, said John Marselle, vice president of Sun's federal division. Sun officials can benefit from the center because it makes implementations with company products more likely to succeed, influencing customers' future business decisions.

Officials at partner companies can demonstrate to potential customers their products' capabilities in conjunction with Sun systems, Marselle said. Because the demonstrations are conducted in a controlled environment, they are less likely to go awry than when they are at a customer site, he said.

Now that the center has formally opened, Sebuck wants to spread the word. "Most important right now is that we get our message out to partners and customers that we exist and are ready to do business," she said.

Although vendors are always looking for ways to strengthen their partnerships, Sun's iForce centers represent an especially aggressive, committed approach, said John Ortego, president of Ortego and Associates, a business consulting firm. "I think it is rather ambitious," he said. "It is rather creative."

Different constituents using the center may see it from different perspectives, according to Sun officials involved in the center's development.

"I see it as a bridge," said John Leahy III, chief of staff at Sun Federal. "It bridges you to the real world" from a demonstration environment. Officials at small companies who are smart about using the center's resources can discover which combinations of their products and Sun's products will most effectively meet their customers' needs, he said.

"Customers want solutions to their problems," Leahy said. "They still do buy components, but predominantly the business is a solutions business."

He also touted the center's potential for advancing research and development. Although companies won't take up residence there as they do at incubator sites, they will have the same advantages of dialogue with one another and sharing of insights. Ideas emerge through dialogue, he said, adding that nobody can be an expert in everything.

The center also provides an invaluable test bed for small firms, said Arthur Sands, chief operating officer and executive vice president of AC Technology Inc., a company specializing in security and biometric systems. Sands is running early alpha tests on some new software products at the center. "To test it on an enterprise level takes something like this," he said.

Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, a trade organization for government contractors, said initiatives such as the iForce centers can be beneficial to both their creators and users, but it's unclear how much of a benefit they are.

"It's the type of thing that in and of itself is not going to be a solution to all of your government contracting business success stories," he said. "But it's certainly something that can play a positive role in that."

Sun officials aren't sure yet what the center's capacity will be in terms of the number of partners who will be able to use its resources simultaneously. Early on, it's possible to accommodate users without a great deal of structure. As demand increases, however, more formalized scheduling may be required, Marselle said.

The center represents a significant investment for Sun, he said, but one that serves the interests of the company, its partners and its customers. "How can you not do it?" he asked. "How can you not build labs that are customer-friendly?"

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