Sun's N1 to appear first on blade servers

Sun Microsystems Inc. will give users the first look at its N1 hardware and software management technology on new blade servers that should arrive by the first quarter of next year, executives said during a briefing on Monday.

Sun will retool software that it acquired through its recent purchase of Terraspring Inc. to form what it calls the N1 Control Plane. The product will serve as a management portal that looks out over servers, storage systems, switches and software in a network. Sun plans to sell the Control Plane product with various hardware packages but will ship it first on a new set of blade servers due in the first quarter, said Steve MacKay, vice president of N1 at Sun.

"If you think about what a blade system is, it's a data center on a shelf," MacKay said. "There's load balancing blades, networking blades and server blades that need to be managed. We'll be dong that via N1."

N1 is the overarching term for Sun's "virtualization" technology, which provides customers with a large-scale view of all the hardware in a network, be it from Sun or another vendor, and then makes it easier to install operating systems, applications, updates and other software on those systems.. Software components such as Control Plane will work in unison with specialized hardware to give a view of how many processors, how much disk space and what types of bandwidth are available throughout the network. The idea is that administrators will one day be able to deploy an application by dragging and dropping the icon onto the image of this collected pool of hardware and letting the N1 technology do all the installation and administrative grunt work.

IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. are the other major server vendors to have outlined a similar vision. A number of storage companies and software makers are also working on this type of technology.

While Sun has been touting N1 for several months, the Control Plane software comes out of its acquisition of Terraspring which was completed only last month. MacKay refused to answer questions Monday about whether Sun had already been working on a similar type of technology in-house.

"We have lots of technology inside Sun, but there are times when there is better technology outside of Sun," he said.

As reported earlier, HP has been using the Terraspring software in its UDC (utility data center) technology, which is similar in concept to N1. Sun asserted that HP is "stuck on version 1.0" of the software while Sun will be using version 3.0, which includes support for seeing more types of hardware from various vendors.

For its part, HP's chief technology officer, Shane Robison, said in an interview last week that his company will continue to develop the Terraspring technology using insight it already has into the code. He charged that Sun was forced to acquire the technology because it is behind in the race to create a virtualized view of the datacenter.

Sun has acknowledged that it will take time to prepare all of the N1 technology and for it to be widely adopted by customers.

"We are in the early days here," MacKay said. "This is part of a multi-, multi-year journey. We think it's important to talk about new ideas and it's important to get people on board."

Sun expects the first of its customers to begin using its N1 technology with the release of its blade servers early next year. Over time Sun expects to sell a variety of hardware that comes preconfigured with its N1 technology. Its professional services organization will also work to sell the N1 software to Sun's customers. The company would not provide any type of pricing model for N1 software at this time.

Come 2005, Sun hopes to make its customers lives much easier by shipping improved versions of its virtualization software along with provisioning applications for shooting software out across many servers, and hardware that can notify an administrator of a failure before it happens, MacKay said.

Ideally, administrators will be able to set up a data center once and then use that as a model for other networks at their company, MacKay said. For example, a user will go into the Control Plane GUI (graphical user interface) and drag a version of Solaris, Linux or Windows onto a server, then drag an application onto it and have the Control Plane software take care of the installation. The software will also recommend the best type of server for a particular application and how much storage space is both required and available on the network.

Once administrators' fine tune this kind of set-up, they could tell the software to replicate the exact same installation to create a disaster recovery site, for example.

This futuristic vision will take time for Sun to build out, although MacKay is hoping there is a customer ready for it today.

"I am still waiting for someone to be brave enough to say, 'We'll take a whole data center and do N1,'" he said.

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