Sun strengthens OS and storage offerings

It was difficult to miss the important announcements that Sun Microsystems made November 15. The company announced a new OS, Solaris 10; a new file system, ZFS (zettabyte file system); plus a handful of storage-specific products, including management software, two new storage arrays, and a new tape library.

Doesn't this sound like a storage-centric announcement? Indeed it is, because even though Solaris 10 brings about 600 new features (and promises to be more efficient, faster, easier to manage, and more resilient than previous versions), I'd argue that its major benefits are storage-related.

My favorite Solaris 10 features are the application containers and ZFS.

It's easy to describe Solaris' app containers: Imagine being able to partition a single machine into separate zones, each capable of independently running a Solaris or Linux application. Does this remind you of VMs? Well, Solaris containers are Sun's response to the virtual OSes from Microsoft and VMware -- but the significant difference is that those containers run just applications without adding another OS layer to the pile.

With Solaris containers, the result is, according to Sun, a very modest overhead while still keeping those applications in isolated compartments. If one fails, others on different containers will be unaffected.

For customers, an obvious advantage of containers is to consolidate Linux and Solaris applications on the same hardware, with significant cost savings. To sweeten the deal even more, Sun is not demanding license fees for Solaris.

It's reasonable to assume that most customers will feel compelled to get a maintenance contract, but my contacts at Sun assure me that the total OS cost, including support options, should be competitive with comparable offerings from Red Hat.

Moving on, ZFS is the new 128-bit file system that combines an unrivaled scalability (can you figure out how much storage is held by the number 2128? It's a lot) with a simplified set of commands that should make storage administrators very happy.

In fact, ZFS simplifies creating file systems by acquiring storage directly from virtual storage pools and does not require -- as older file systems do -- a volume manager. In addition, ZFS should minimize or eliminate the possibility of a corrupted file system following a hard shutdown. For example, the familiar "fsck" command, used to verify or correct the integrity of older file systems, doesn't apply to ZFS.

You can still use old file systems such as NFS, but you'll get an added bonus. Expect some significant performance improvement with the new OS, as much as 30 percent or more, according to Sun.

What can we make of Solaris 10's new features? It's fair to say that Sun is reacting to the OS competition by making Solaris more palatable and less expensive.

The other storage-specific announcements aim to create a Sun-labeled storage offering open both to its own and to competitors' products. For example, the new StorEdge ESM (Enterprise Storage Manager) application has the ambitious goal of managing heterogeneous storage devices from a single console. Not surprisingly, ESM is built around the SMI-S (Storage Management Initiative Specification); it will also discover -- although not manage -- older, noncompliant devices.

Sun seems to be willing to cover both the high end and the midtier segment with its own devices and applications.

In simultaneous announcements, Sun is bringing forth a new, midtier SAN array, a high-end NAS appliance, and an LTO (linear tape open) tape library that starts with 30 cartridges slots and can expand to accommodate hundreds.

Will those announcements bring Sun's storage offering up to speed with its competitors? Not quite yet, but they are significant steps in the right direction. Perhaps what matters the most is that Sun customers will have fewer reasons to shop elsewhere for storage. Solaris 10 is once again a notch above other OSes and should charm new customers because it's free, has great features, and can run on Intel- and AMD-based machines. A tryout should be on the top of your to-do list.

Mario Apicella is a senior analyst at the InfoWorld Test Center.

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