A new Sun set to rise on storage

You don't very often see an emotional farewell like the one the new CEO of Sun Microsystems, Jonathan Schwartz, delivered saluting former CEO Scott McNealy.

Try reading that speech in its entirety because it reveals some precious insights on private aspects of the character of both men that many outsiders (I, for one) may have never guessed.

Schwartz's salute touches on some of the most vibrant milestones in computing of the past 15 or 20 years. Those milestones had so much influence on the lives of many people, either working in the IT industry or not: the ascent of the Windows OS; the general, worldwide acceptance of Java; and the bursting of the dot-com bubble.

Looking back, Sun was the first company to connect a box of disks to a server using fibre links -- but it allowed other vendors to eat its storage lunch. Isn't it also ironic that the company that preached to everybody that "the network is the computer" did not extend the same leadership to storage, which is a major component of that network?

Maybe that's changing: A vibrant message came out on Tuesday from Sun's Network Computing 2006 event, declaring that the company is now (finally) looking at storage as a network resource. Here's what McNealy had to say on that:

"In the Participation Age, I believe storage is going to be a network resource. Instead of carrying it around in your briefcase, or your laptop, or on your iPod, it's going to be a network resource, it's going to be accessible anytime, anyplace, from any device, by anyone with the proper authentication and the proper identification."

Sun made several major announcements at the Network Computing event, covering several new products and services, but perhaps the most interesting takeaway was its new storage strategy.

Building systems that are trustworthy, simple to manage, access-protected, and have value for the customers are the four elements of that strategy, according to Mark Canepa, executive vice president of the data management group at Sun, in a conversation we had a few days before the event.

"We believe that a lot of customers' applications are going to run on the grid, and some are already running on the grid today," Canepa continues. "Having thousands of applications running in a grid environment means that we have to provide a storage system that is consistent with that."

Care to know how Sun's going to do that? Canepa is quick to explain that virtualization is the key to keeping storage manageable in a grid environment: "We are probably leading the virtualization in the storage crowd. If you look at the [Sun StorageTek] 9000, we can already create over 8,000 LUNs [logical unit numbers]. In the future, we'll make that number grow a lot."

Incidentally, expect to see the StorageTek name more often because from now on it will become the brand name of all Sun storage products.

We'll have to talk some other time about ZFS, the new 128-bit file system announced at the end of 2004 that Sun is finally shipping this quarter. Also, we'll have to revisit the StorageTek 5320, a new NAS appliance based on AMD Opteron processors with performance levels that Sun claims will leave NetApp products in the dust.

The real scoop of Network Computing 2006 is something that you cannot buy just yet. Project Honeycomb is the code name for a new technology that Sun promises "will blur the lines between application servers and storage." Think of a resilient storage system that -- instead of being a dumb data repository, as most are -- has a well-defined personality and actually "knows" the data it contains.

At the event, Sun presented a first prototype capable of independently conducting searches making the best use of its contained data and metadata. Future evolutions of this new species of storage could develop additional personalities; think of mail-aware or database-aware appliances.

Moreover, Honeycomb (I'll use this name for now) can push resilience to a new level. At the show Sun proved that such a system can survive the simultaneous failure of three disk drives, which will kill traditional, RAID-based systems.

I believe that Honeycomb will become yet another milestone in Sun's history, but technology is not the only front the company is engaged on -- they're also out chasing more revenue. Visit its site's store and you will see it populated with many bargain offers, such as significant discounts when you bundle both servers and storage in your order.

Perhaps that's what's needed, in addition to cutting-edge technology, for a new profitable Sun to rise.

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