Solar flare resurges

Sun reinvents its image with new products and services

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"Open wide"

Sun Microsystems has worn several hats during its lifetime. There was Sun the workstation provider, then Sun the developer of the Solaris operating system. There's Sun the server company, Sun the Java pioneer and now Sun the network computing firm.

Building on the company's theme, "the network is the computer," Sun officials came to Washington, D.C., recently to unveil several new offerings, including storage management systems and new services for Sun's grid initiative.

Sun officials use the term "grid" in several ways, said Gordon Haff, a senior analyst at Illuminata. Sometimes the term refers to a family of software products. Sometimes it means Sun's utility computing offering, in which customers pay for computer power or storage on a subscription basis. However, Haff said, the company is hardly alone in using the term so broadly.

At the event, Scott McNealy, Sun's president, chairman and chief executive officer, was candid about the company's search for an identity in recent years. However, he said the company's products remain popular. Solaris 10, the latest version of the company's Unix-based operating system, has been downloaded more than 1.3 million times since its release in February, he said.

Still, Sun officials said they believe that many of the markets they serve are slowly moving away from the traditional paradigm of owning and managing information technology, and toward more centralized models. Utility computing is one significant model they are counting on to grow.

McNealy has his eye on the government market, positioning Sun's technologies as a solution to many government problems.

"Governments have a lot of issues, a lot of challenges," he said.

That evolving strategy is necessary for the company's success, Haff said. "Whether it's the Sun grid or a number of other things they're doing, they are absolutely trying to reinvent themselves," he said. "Moving from being a workstation company to being a server company was reinvention. Now, moving to largely new ways of making money is likewise reinvention."

The company is widely regarded within the government as an innovator, said Herb Strauss, a vice president and principal national security analyst at Gartner. In the years leading up to the Internet frenzy of the late 1990s, Sun spent a lot of money on research and development, earning the respect of federal officials.

"It's been a strong play in the government," he said. "Many of the [information technology] shops grew up on Sun, and there's been a close working relationship with the company. But during the bubble, many companies lost their way and are re-establishing themselves. Sun is one of those companies."

Technology often moves faster than federal acquisition policy, and government officials' acceptance of new ideas can come slowly, Strauss said.

"It may take a bit before government clients recognize there are going to be different ways to introduce technologies to the enterprise other than just buying" them, he said. "How much control do they want to lose, and how much service do they want to take?"

Haff said Sun isn't alone in any of its new endeavors. IBM and Hewlett-Packard offer the same kind of outsourced computing cycles that Sun is offering through its subscription model, for example.

"Although they're not actually delivering it yet, Sun is differentiated today with the idea of delivering this at a fixed price from a public portal," Haff said. "Mind you, that's a public portal that's not available yet. What they're delivering today is more analogous to what IBM is delivering."

The company would be well advised to not move too fast on launching the portal, he added.

"There's a lot of details, some of which they may not have thought through, that have to be resolved," he said. "What if somebody uses [Sun's] portal to do something illegal? There are issues that Sun is going to have to resolve. I don't think any of it's insurmountable, but it does take time."

Grid computing in general is gathering momentum due to a number of factors, including increasing demands that systems be interoperable, said Peter Lee, CEO of DataSynapse, an application development firm.

"This is a fundamental shift, as important as the Internet," he said. Grid computing will change the way applications are developed and implemented, and the way vendors relate to one another, he said.

The grid model will become more mature as applications become available, Strauss said.

"Over time, Sun's expectation is that you're going to get more standardized types of software that will be suitable for running in this type of environment," he said. "I think their fundamental vision here is sound. Companies do spend an enormous amount of effort reinventing the wheel, in terms of re-implementing, rehosting and remaintaining plain vanilla business services such as e-mail."

Solar systems

Scott McNealy (right), president, chairman and chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems, led the way in announcing several new offerings at Sun's Network Computing '05 event in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

Among the announcements:

  • Sun Update Connection — A utility that provides automated updates to Sun software, regardless of the hardware platform used.
  • Sun Grid Rack System and Sun Grid Solution — Rackmount hardware and software that lets customers create grid environments in their own organizations.
  • StorEdge — Java-based storage software available on a subscription basis.
  • N1 System Manager — A tool for managing Sun systems, both large and small installations.
  • N1 Service Provisioning System update — A new version of a tool for remote provisioning of Java platform servers, application servers, Web servers and databases.
  • — Michael Hardy

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