Sun makes bid for storage market

After years of taking storage for granted and driving many customers to look elsewhere for the latest, most innovative solutions, Sun Microsystems Inc. finally seems ready to get serious about storage.

Just as important as Sun's volley of new storage product announcements last month is its ambitious goal to be customers' one-stop shop for storage solutions, a roughly year-old mission in which the vendor is already making strides, analysts say.

Although a move into the burgeoning storage market would seem to bode well for Sun's recently strained bottom line, analysts say that federal agencies and other customers also stand to benefit as the heightened market competition drives down prices and broadens the range of leading-edge solutions.

Sun officials readily concede that their past attempts in the storage arena were half-hearted, but say they now better understand their customers' needs. "We were asleep at the wheel and didn't have competitive solutions. Now we do," said John Maxwell, Sun's vice president of marketing for network storage.

Case in point: Sun's previous workhorse storage system, the StorEdge T3 disk array. The T3 has limited scalability; it supports direct connections to only two servers at a time, compared to the 16 to 32 servers supported by disk arrays from Sun competitors such as EMC Corp., Hitachi Data Systems and IBM Corp., according to Dianne McAdam, an analyst with the market research firm Illuminata Inc.

Last month, Sun introduced two new arrays, the StorEdge 3900 and StorEdge 6900, that overcome many of the T3's limitations. Both units sport more advanced controllers — mini-servers built into the arrays that allow them to deliver advanced system diagnostics and management features such as automatic notification of system problems, McAdam said. Also, built-in switching technology enables the units to connect to many more servers than the T3 can (see box).

"The new systems are for customers who want more of a complete storage array optimized for high-performance computing [rather] than just components like our T3 JBODS," which stands for just a bunch of disks, Maxwell said.

On the storage software side, Sun's new strategy, called Storage ONE, is to consolidate its diverse product line into four functional suites that address availability, performance, resource management and utilization.

Previously, "there have been a number of point solutions that have different management interfaces and no common menus. It's complex to purchase and manage," said John Kelly, senior product marketing manager for Sun's storage software products group. "Storage ONE is our initiative to provide a common storage software family that shares a central architecture and database while providing a single management console."

Although that kind of under-the-hood integration is Sun's ultimate goal, the four suites introduced last month basically bundle products as they exist today, with two new file systems and a pricing scheme that is based on the amount of data being managed, according to Kelly.

Even though the real integration work remains to be done, Storage ONE is the most important part of Sun's announcement, according to Steve Kenniston, an analyst with Enterprise Storage Group Inc. "Storage is headed in the direction of comprehensive enterprise storage management," he said. The Sun suites "bring you into the realm of managing the total storage environment."

Another key development from Sun is the new QFS file system, according to John Webster, a senior analyst with Illuminata.

QFS is a sharable file system that enables multiple servers to access the same files simultaneously, for reading and even writing. This type of data sharing is "an issue that the storage industry has needed to solve" as it moves to a networked storage model, Webster said. QFS is now available as part of the StorEdge Performance and Utilization software suites.


What's in store

Sun Microsystems Inc.'s storage strategy builds on two new storage arrays: StorEdge 3900. With ports available to connect to up to seven servers and support for Sun Cluster software, this storage subsystem is built to operate with multiple servers in a high- performance computing environment. The 3900 starts at $77,860.

StorEdge 6900. This new system can connect to up to 14 servers and is designed to be the focal point for midsize storage consolidation strategies. A storage virtualization engine enables information technology managers to carve up the storage pool into as many as 512 different logical units to be allocated among multiple servers. Available later this month, the 6900 starts at $104,870.


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