Sun's Open Storage play: Do unto others...

Sun spent years getting pounded for its proprietary server ways, but now wants to turn the storage industry on its head through the same tactics that maimed its server business.

Sun Microsystems spent a decade getting pummeled by lower-cost, commodity Linux servers. It wants to spend the next decade doing the same to its storage rivals.

I spent time talking with Sun executives over the past few days and was surprised by the intensity and focus the Sun team is bringing to its storage commoditization play. For years Sun has been (often rightly) derided for lacking focus and being stuck in a proprietary UNIX past. It has reorganized its business units as often as some people change clothes.

But I genuinely sense a different Sun is in motion now. With projects like FISHworks (Fully Integrated Software and Hardware), Sun wants to change the economics of the storage industry just as its server rivals once did to it. Ashlee Vance of The New York Times reported this shift in Sun strategy last September, but few others have taken adequate notice.

If you have 90 percent of the features most people want and you win big on price/performance, then you can be very disruptive.

That's the opinion of Mike Shapiro, a distinguished engineer at Sun, and it's one I believe deserves more attention.

It's easy to write off Sun's chances, but consider: Sun has a tremendously deep engineering talent pool with a history of producing exceptional hardware and software. Its back against the Wall Street wall, Sun now has an economic incentive to take big risks on open source/commodity business models. It also has a long memory of how its proprietary server business was pulverized by Linux in the past decade.

Sun sees storage as the next big market demanding commodity economics, and this time it wants to be the one to put the squeeze to its competitors. This, along with Sun's Open Web initiative, make Sun a dangerous competitor, precisely because its competitors have so much to lose even as Sun makes big, risky bets.

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