Sun readies new server software for N1

Sun Microsystems Inc. is developing new server software to manage the provisioning of server resources in distributed computing environments, one of several products it will roll out in the coming years as part of its ambitious N1 project, Sun officials said Friday.

The N1 program aims to help IT departments manage their data centers more efficiently. The idea is to make it possible for administrators to pool resources such as processing power, storage and bandwidth and allocate them to applications on an as-needed basis, as easily as if they were part of a single system. IBM Corp. and other vendors are working on comparable initiatives.

As part of its effort, Sun will demonstrate a new provisioning server in the coming weeks that should make it easier for enterprises to allocate computing resources in such distributed environments. When an application is performing poorly, for example, an administrator would more easily be able to transfer some of the work to a different server that has spare processing power.

The idea is to move from a "systems view" of the data center to a view that looks primarily at applications and services, and then make it easier to allocate system resources accordingly, said Jonathan Schwartz, executive vice president of Sun's software group, at a briefing with reporters at Sun's offices here.

Sun already offers a handful of provisioning tools for its high-end servers. Just last month it introduced Change Manager, designed to automate the installation and maintenance of software on large groups of servers. The provisioning server will probably draw from existing technologies but should make it easier to manage servers that previously weren't linked by common tools.

"This is similar to what we do with our high-end boxes," Schwartz said. "We need to transfer that to the Web, with boxes attached together by Ethernet. N1 is just simply the notion of 'cable once and run forever' - you don't have to worry about cabling any more."

Officials here declined to say when the provisioning server would be launched or provide further details. It will be the first of several server products that Sun will roll out in the coming years as it builds out its N1 architecture, said Anil Gadre, a vice president with Sun's software group.

Judging from comments made here, a version of the product probably will be bundled free with Sun's operating system. Sun has decided to bundle a basic edition of all its middleware products with Solaris and to synchronize the release of all those products so that customers don't have to deal with frequent upgrades and patches.

The decision to bundle its middleware with Solaris and update the products together on a quarterly basis is "probably one of the most important steps in our strategy," Schwartz said, adding that part of the goal is to reduce complexity for customers.

"What we've heard from customers constantly is, 'please make it easier for us,' " he said.

Sun has already bundled a version of its Sun ONE application server and directory server with Solaris. Specific dates for bundling other products with Solaris weren't provided. Sun's middleware and clustering software will be among "the kind of core elements that will now become part of the operating system," Schwartz said.

The caveat is that the bundled products will be limited-use editions, similar to the standard version of Sun's application server currently offered with Solaris. "There is a price to scale them up," he said.

Schwartz also said the company will introduce a "more uniform" pricing scheme for its middleware. CIOs don't want to have to deal with per-user and per-CPU pricing schemes for multiple products because it's too complicated, so Sun will switch to a "per capability, or per capacity" pricing, he said, without elaborating.

Schwartz rejected the idea that Sun's plan mimics Microsoft Corp.'s moves to bundle formerly independent applications, such as Internet Explorer, into Windows. That bundling, in part, led to the U.S. Department of Justice's antitrust case against Microsoft.

"We complained about Microsoft being a monopoly, and we complained about integration and tying, which is (when) you cannot use the OS without product 'xyz.' We do not live in that world," Schwartz said. Users are free to use other vendors' directory or messaging products with Solaris even if those functions are already included in Sun's operating system, he said.

Officials here also reiterated the company's goal of providing a sound alternative to Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows desktop. The effort draws on a variety of endeavors including the StarOffice desktop productivity suite and Project Mad Hatter, Sun's internal name for its plan to sell low-cost desktop computers running Linux, StarOffice, the Mozilla browser and other open-source software.

Schwartz also was skeptical of grid computing efforts being promoted by IBM, even though Sun itself is delving into that area. Grid computing allows groups of low-end systems to be tethered together to make better use of their computing resources, but there are issues such as transactional integrity, he said.

"Doing grid in a distributed world doesn't fly," Schwartz said.

Discussing its hardware plans for the coming year, Sun officials gave perhaps the strongest indication yet that Intel Corp. processors form a vital part of its hardware strategy. The bulk of Sun's revenue comes from systems based on its own Sparc processors, and the company in the past has been lukewarm to Intel's standard server hardware.

"The evolution of the next wave of computing is really happening in little boxes running Linux on Intel or Solaris on Intel," Schwartz said. "It's the aggregation of those boxes ... that is beginning to transform the world."

Sun customers have the option of using both SPARC and Intel-type processors in some of its servers, he said. He even suggested that future Sun servers could house powerful 64-bit processors from Intel and its rival, Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

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