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Sunrise, sunset: Sun Microsystems’ Bechtolsheim decamps to take on Cisco

Sun Microsystems co-founder, early Google backer and computer engineer extraordinaire Andreas von Bechtolsheim is leaving his job as chief architect at Sun to apply his considerable talents to Arista Networks, a company he started as a sideline four years ago. The startup, which sells cloud networking technology for large data centers, has built a line of 10 Gigabit Ethernet switches that Arista execs say rivals anything Cisco offers, for a fraction of the cost. Google is a customer.

This is the second time von Bechtolsheim has left Sun, having decamped in 1995 to found Granite Systems, also a developer of high-speed network switches. That company was acquired in 1996 by Cisco for $220 million, with Bechtolsheim owning 60%. He worked in Cisco’s Gigabit Systems Business Unit until leaving to found Kealia Inc. with David Cheriton, a partner at Granite Systems. Kealia, which focused on advanced server technology, was acquired by Sun in 2004, prompting Bechtolsheim’s return to his old stomping grounds.

The high-profile leave-taking is getting a lot of play in the industry and mainstream press, most of pretty  breathless. The New York Times story refers to Bechtolsheim as  a “brilliant billionaire who has created some of the best-selling computer systems in the industry.” BusinessWeek casts the high-profile leave-taking as another blow for the slumping Sun, depicting Bechtolsheim as Sun’s “technical savior.”

No question the German-born Bechtolsheim is a star of the first order at Sun. He was a wunderkind when he designed Sun’s (Java) original workstation while still a Ph.D. student at Stanford University and does not appear to have lost any of that youthful brilliance. Certainly Sun Chairman Scott McNealy must be feeling the loss, judging from a keynote talk he gave shortly after Bechtolsheim returned to the company in 2004.

In the keynote an ecstatic McNealy recalls meeting Bechtolsheim on the Stanford campus “a long long time ago,” when McNealy was 27. “Little did I know that he would turn into what I consider to be the most prolific and exciting and talented workstation and single-board computer designer on the planet,” says McNealy, welcoming “employee number one” home and inviting Bechtolsheim to join him on stage to answer questions about what the Kealia technology would do for Sun.

“This guy is prolific beyond anything you’ve seen and we are very, very excited. It is kind of nice to have him running up the steps and lighting the torch here for what we are going to do. … I just do not know if you can tell how excited I am to have Andy back on board because I will follow this guy anywhere and do everything I can to help him be successful.”

You can read the full interchange with Bechtolsheim at that 2004 conference on

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