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Rhonda Holt leads Sun Micro's utility computing program

She's building the grids and creating the data centers that will deliver vast computer resources to small and medium businesses and individual users

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Rhonda Holt is leading an initiative that could revolutionize IT service.

Rhonda Holt is leading an initiative that could revolutionize IT service.

Rhonda Holt has forged her career at IT companies with exciting new ideas and fresh approaches. Today she's leading a new initiative at Sun Microsystems Inc (Santa Clara, CA), and she says it will revolutionize the IT industry's service to small and medium businesses and individual users.

Holt is VP of the grid engineering program office. The idea of grid engineering is to provide huge collections of computer resources for customers to tap into. Computing will be supplied in the same way a utility provides power or water. Sun thinks of the concept as "utility computing."

Sun hopes to persuade telecoms, cable companies and other service providers to adopt its utility computing model, Holt says. Lucky customers can already access commercial grids in New Jersey and the UK. Sun's development grid is in Santa Clara, CA.

The individual user, Holt explains, will have as much access to computer resources as a company with its own data center. "It gives small businesses the ability to do their business using the resources that only much larger businesses typically have access to."

There's always a challenge when creating a new business model, Holt concedes. The idea is "to overcome this by positioning Sun as the business partner of choice for service providers like Verizon, and by demonstrating the value that a utility model can deliver."

Holt drives ops
It's Holt's job to manage operations for the utility computing business unit, which is developing the technology and also defining the business model. "We have to build the grids and create the data centers that deliver the computing power. That's the operational aspect of driving and managing the grid," Holt explains.

The unit employs about 300 people, and Holt has direct supervision of some fifteen managers. She's been on the job for more than a year.

The utility computing business has its own R&D; unit. But, "Because we operate facilities and set facilities up, we also rely heavily on other Sun Microsystems business units to support us," Holt says.

Growing up techie
Holt is the child of a sergeant major in the Army. Although the family moved around a lot, Holt considered Florida her home. There she caught "space-shuttle fever," like many other young people of her generation.

She was drawn to both aerospace and computing. In the end she chose IT because of an interesting high school job with the agricultural department of the University of Florida.

One of her responsibilities there was data entry. In the early 1980s, that meant working at a terminal hooked up to the university computer.

She dialed the phone, "and the huge machine decided whether or not to answer and accept me into the queue, and then I'd sit there until it was my turn to actually log on and enter my data.

"I thought the whole process was absolutely fascinating," Holt says.

Learning at IBM
During her junior year at the University of Florida, Holt co-opped at IBM's Boca Raton, FL facility, which was the base for IBM's PC projects at the time. She worked on the data center side. In 1986, when she was about to receive her BSCS, IBM offered her a choice of jobs, in Poughkeepsie, NY or Tucson, AZ.

She took the Arizona job, and worked for IBM's storage systems division for ten years, as a developer and then a manager. IBM did high-end storage controller development in Tucson, and Holt was managing micro-code release engineering.

In 1993 the company asked her to move to San Jose, CA, to help get a lagging new product back on schedule. "It was perfect timing," she says. "It put me in Silicon Valley at the height of the Internet boom, and right in the path of Sun Microsystems."

Blown away by Sun
A recruiter introduced her to Sun early in 1996. "I was absolutely blown away by the company. It was young, fledgling and feisty. The people I met were very high energy, full of ideas, inquisitive, and it was all just very attractive."

So she went to work at Sun, taking various management roles in the Solaris division on the high-availability software team. She went on to VP of storage systems engineering in the network storage division, responsible for Sun's midrange and low-end storage subsystems.

VP at Dell
Then Dell (Austin, TX) recruited her. In 2003 she became VP of enterprise systems management software, leading a multi-site development organization and managing business relationships with Dell's third-party software providers.

But she stayed in contact with her mentors at Sun.

Settled at Sun
Last year she rejoined Sun in her current job. "I wanted to get back into a company that develops intellectual property. That's something I enjoy," she explains.

As well as benefiting from the advice of her own mentors, Holt has served as a mentor herself through Sun's African American network, NSBE and the IT Senior Management Forum.

She's also on the advisory board of the College of Engineering at the University of Florida, and deeply involved in its outreach program to attract young women into engineering.

"It's near and dear to me, because that's the only way I see the high-tech industry making a difference," she explains. "To maintain our competitiveness we have to tap all constituencies: women, African Americans, Hispanics and other diverse communities," she says.


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