N1 will involve "virtualizing" hardware and software to shield administrators from the pains of managing numerous individual boxes filled with computing gear such as processors and hard disks, executives said at Sun's analyst conference here.
"The big new disruptive technology you'll hear about over the next few years is How do I virtualize my storage, my computer resources?" said Sun Chief Operating Officer Ed Zander.
Indeed, virtualization is sweeping across the storage marketplace as a way to pool many storage systems, often from different manufacturers, into one giant pool. Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Compaq Computer, EMC and others have virtualization initiatives under way.
But N1 will be broader than just storage devices, said Pat Sueltz, general manager of Sun Microsystems' Software Systems Group and the executive ultimately responsible for the project. "You're talking about functions performed by different parts of the system," all components of the data center ecosystem.
N1 fits with several other hardware priorities at Sun, Zander said. "V1" is Sun's "vertical" work to create large, powerful servers crammed with processors such as its new Sun Fire 15K; "H1" is for large numbers of smaller "horizontal" servers; and "S1" is for storage products.
Management software already is commonplace in the industry, with products such as Computer Associates' Unicenter, HP's OpenView and IBM's Tivoli in widespread use. But Sun's plan is broader, Sueltz insists, because it will focus on the availability of computing services rather than on the status of individual computers.
Leading the effort is distinguished researcher Yousef Khalidi, who was instrumental in building Sun's "" software for high-end systems and who reports to Solaris chief Anil Gadre and ultimately to Sueltz.
Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadopoulos is expected to preview the N1 technology Thursday, said Chief Marketing Officer John Loiacono. "N1 is going to be a huge differentiator for us going forward," he said.
Also Thursday, Sun will take on the issue of Linux, a clone of Unix that competes with Sun's Solaris. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison "dialed in the Linux question," quipped Zander, referring to Ellison's remark in January that the company will move its core business operations from Unix systems to cheaper Intel systems running Linux.
"We're doing a lot on Linux," Zander said, mentioning the company's open-source StarOffice suite that competes with Microsoft Office, its Cobalt servers that run Linux, its open-source Forte programming tools and the iPlanet e-commerce software that runs on Linux. "Maybe we haven't marketed it well."
Sun has often been lukewarm about Linux, which the company also has described as a stepping-stone to Solaris with its higher-end features. But in discussions with customers, Zander said, "I am getting a lot of questions about Linux on the low end," and leading Linux seller Red Hat has targeted the replacement of Unix servers as its primary market.
Five years from now, the question of Linux vs. Solaris will be one that customers aren't interested in as they focus on higher-level issues, he predicted. "Do I ask you what pistons you use in your car?"