Sun proposes to the princess of storage

I'm not going to get into trouble by determining who's the king and who's the queen, but I'll admit I've always thought of StorageTek as the princess of the pure storage companies. As you have probably heard, Sun Microsystems has requested the princess' hand in an acquisition deal that will have people talking for a long time.

All that talk is not surprising, considering the parties involved. One of the things that struck me about the Sun-buying-StorageTek story is the powerful metaphor made by Sun Chairman and CEO Scott McNealy during the announcement of the deal. McNealy compared what StorageTek brings to the deal to (I'm paraphrasing) the landing gear of an airplane: Not needed all the time, but critical when in use.

With all due respect for McNealy, that metaphor -- however suggestive it may be -- is a bit off and could send the wrong message when Sun is trying to buy more credibility as a storage player with a stack of bills US$4.1 billion high.

Sticking with McNealy's figure of speech, when the deal completes, Sun will have bought the most expensive landing gear ever. In part, McNealy's metaphor could be what triggered some analysts' negative comments about the acquisition -- and some odd remarks such as the suggestion that Sun should have targeted a software company instead.

For cryin' out loud, people, this is Sun! It invented Java. It has software that runs on every possible platform already. It has Solaris, a popular OS that got a mighty face-lift just last November. Do you really think Sun needs to acquire a software company? If so, how about starting a snow-selling business in Alaska next winter?

From some comments made during that acquisition conference, I learned that Sun isn't done shopping around, and it could end up buying a "software company" after all -- such as one with smart applications to propel Sun's ILM (information lifecycle management) and utility computing ambitions.

Time will tell, but the acquisition of StorageTek brings critical components Sun would have a hard time building in-house or buying elsewhere. For example, StorageTek's tapes and tape-libraries business has an intrinsically large cash potential and could open new doors with mainframe customers -- usually a no-fly zone for Sun.

Does anyone see the benefits of making reconnaissance flights over territories traditionally dominated by EMC and IBM? Sun does, and at the conference its managers made some unequivocal remarks to that effect.

In addition, StorageTek has recently invested part of its streamlined R&D budget in exploring new possibilities in the data protection sphere. Remember StorageTek's recent release of the LFCM (Lifecycle Fixed Content Manager) line? LFCM is a compliance solution for large e-mail repositories, and StorageTek serves it through a flavor of content-addressed storage technology. LFCM is, in essence, a serious challenger for rival solutions from EMC.

LFCM brings to Sun some much-needed technology that fits quite well with other pieces it already has, such as storage capacity on demand, a recent offering aimed at Sun's high-end customers. Will those clearly complementary technologies merge into a new and captivating line of products? Will Sun graciously smooth its (few) points that overlap with StorageTek?

I don't have a clue -- and it's unlikely anybody else does, either. What I know is that the intent to acquire StorageTek is another indication of Sun's renewed attention to storage. On the other end, StorageTek's willingness to enter the deal is a great example of realpolitik, as it comes from a company that lately had more ambitions than cash to pursue them.

The union with Sun may also spread awareness among Sun brass that storage is more than just landing gear -- it's more like flight-sustaining wings, in my book.

Definitions and semantics notwithstanding, I see a rosy future for the combined company, and a possibility that customers will get the best of both parties, as long as Sun never again underestimates the importance of storage. I'm confident its customers won't allow that to happen again.

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