Sun's Unified Storage Systems

When it comes to Sun and storage, there is good news, bad news, and ugly news

David Hill

November 18, 2008

5 Min Read
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12:05 PM -- Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: JAVA) last week announced the availability of its Unified Storage Systems -- the Sun Storage 7000 family, also known as "Amber Road." That is the main event and driver in a discussion about Sun that has to include the good, the bad, and the ugly. Lets start off with the good news.

Sun calls the Storage 7000 family the "world's first Open Storage appliances" and proclaims them to be "the biggest thing to happen to storage in decades." Although that is excessive market hype, putting it mildly, the product is actually quite clever and innovative and a tribute to Sun's technical skills. The Storage 7000 family consists of three appliances (the Sun Storage 7110, 7210, and 7410) ranging in overall capacity from 2 Tbytes to 288 Tbytes. Only the high end 7410 offers a cluster configuration (for higher availability), meaning that it is targeted for enterprise-class configurations, whereas the lower-end products are designed for smaller installations.

Unified storage can run both NAS and SAN solutions, and Sun draws heavily upon its well regarded ZFS (Zettabyte File System) in the Storage 7000 family. EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC) and NetApp Inc. (Nasdaq: NTAP) (in conjunction with its strong working relationship with IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)) are leaders in the unified storage space. However, both those companies tend to focus their solutions into IT environments that have a strong NAS presence but would like to handle SAN as well.

Sun, on the other hand, has focused on enabling the Storage 7000 family to serve general purpose storage requirements. That is despite the fact that the company keeps referring to the Storage 7000 as a line of appliances. Since storage appliances are typically dedicated to specific functions, Sun's use of the term to describe a general purpose solution is both odd and confusing.

A key Sun messaging point for the Storage 7000 is on making life simpler for storage administrators. That starts with ease of installation, which Sun claims takes only minutes, but continues with key processes such as thin provisioning, a function which is implicit in ZFS (as logical storage pools can be grown or shrunk transparently as long as there is enough physical storage to support them). Another Storage 7000 technology that makes everyday administration easier is DTrace, a set of analytics that enables real-time system diagnostics. Sun feels that DTrace can improve storage system troubleshooting to a degree unparalleled in the industry.A second point Sun emphasizes is Storage 7000 performance. The key focus here is on a concept that the company calls Hybrid Storage Pools, which combine DRAM, read-optimized flash devices, and write-optimized flash devices working in conjunction with hard disk drives. We consider the Hybrid Storage Pool a creative use of SDD technology that demonstrates the promise of how flash memory can blend with disk technologies to cost-effectively turbo-charge performance.

While Sun does not offer everything with the new Storage 7000 family -- encryption and integrated data de-duplication will have to wait until next year -- it does offer a lot. That is the good news, in sum.

The bad news is the unfortunate financial circumstances in which Sun Microsystems continues to find itself. A loss of $1.677 billion on a GAAP basis in Sun's first-quarter 2009 fiscal year that ended Sept. 28, 2008, was primarily due to a $1.445 billion non-cash charge for goodwill impairment (a loss in the carrying value of company assets). This is a one-time accounting charge, but it still does not dismiss the fact that despite numerous strategic initiatives and alliances meant to reinvent its business model, Sun continues to hemorrhage money.

The ugly news is that despite years of effort Sun still doesn't seem to have a solid handle on what to do with storage. The $1.445 billion non-cash charge described above was attributed to the company's 2005 StorageTek acquisition (for $4.1 billion), meaning that the deal, which was supposed to help move Sun into the storage big leagues, has suffered a serious setback or even failed. The acquisition was a bold move, especially when one considers how easy it is for server-legacy companies to maintain a server-first focus that results in them treating storage as a second cousin.

To its credit, Sun tried to escape that mold in the StorageTek deal. But it encountered a new problem along the way. Storage-focused companies including EMC, Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) , Quantum Corp. (NYSE: QTM), and StorageTek are all used to selling on any server platform. Sun could have learned from that dynamic and leveraged StorageTek as a platform for driving sales of its disk storage products in markets and among clients other than Sun legacy customers. Now some of that has taken place, but not to the degree that it probably should have.The Sun Storage 7000 press release illustrates the problem. Technically, the announcement was fine and included a lot of supporting collateral. The questions left unanswered, though, were how this line fits in with the other Sun storage products and how Sun plans to market and sell them effectively. That leads to a related question: What kind of universal themes can Sun use to focus its own internal efforts and get customers excited? EMC uses information governance as one of its themes; Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) focuses on the new generation data center; and IBM has numerous focal points including the Next Generation Data Center and Information Infrastructures. While Sun needs to articulate to its customers (and its employees) why a Sun solution, not just a product, is the way to go, the company’s efforts have been less than stellar.

Rumors and reports of the impending demise (or acquisition) of Sun may or may not be greatly exaggerated. Sun continues to be a technologically strong IT vendor and still has the ability to come up with creative and innovative products, as illustrated by the introduction of the Sun Storage 7000 Unified Storage Systems. But point products alone -- no matter how capable -- are not enough. In addition, the company has to provide customers a reason to buy Sun as an overall solution and not just as a one-off purchasing decision. Sun can use efforts like the Storage 7000 family to help pull back from the brink, but it must carefully think through what part that and other point products can play in a larger and longer-term company strategy.

– David Hill is principal of Mesabi Group LLC, which focuses on helping organizations make their complex storage, storage management, and interrelated IT infrastructure decisions easier by making the choices simpler and clearer to understand.

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