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Sun seeks a storage revolution

Storage may not be the most exciting topic in the world, but big changes are coming that will likely drop the cost of hardware for those of you building data centers.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read

A few years ago, servers based around Linux and Intel or Advanced Micro Devices chips decimated the market for high-end Unix servers.

The same thing is about to happen to in the storage market, says John Fowler, executive vice president of systems at Sun Microsystems. And this time, Sun hopes to be one of the beneficiaries of the trend, not one of the victims.

"Open storage is going to be one of those big changes events for that part of the industry," he said. "The storage marketplace is almost identical to the server market of 10 years ago. High-end storage arrays have proprietary hardware, proprietary silicon, and often proprietary silicon sold at very high margins."

Sun's John Fowler Sun Microsystems

Incumbents like EMC and Network Appliance, however, won't likely give up easily. NetApp and Sun, in fact, are embroiled in a nasty lawsuit over Sun's ZFS file server, which Sun believes will play a crucial role in lowering the price of storage. And, truth be told, Sun has tried for years to break into the upper echelons of storage for years with middling success. In 2005, it spent $3 billion for StorageTek.

Still, standards often have a way of winning. The forces driving the change in the storage market are multicore processors, interfaces like SAS (Serial Attached SCIS) and open-source (or at least easily available) software. Standardization will cause storage systems to drop rapidly in price, Fowler said. Instead of being confined to centralized computing rooms, departments are going to be able to buy their own data storage units.

"It will be like the PC revolution," he said.

A shift toward open storage systems is already occurring in high-performance computing environments and research labs, Fowler said. Large Web sites and huge data centers shouldn't be too far behind, he predicted. Sun's initial foray into open storage was the Sun Fire X4500, a server with a lot of storage capacity, running OpenSolaris and ZFS.

As the price drops, hardware makers will also experiment with adding features on higher end machines. Sun, for instance, is working on a system that contains a cache of flash memory for rapid data access. It will function in a similar way as a hybrid hard drive, but, because it is a complete storage system built from several drives, it will have more capacity.

Although storage isn't the kind of topic that can usually perk up a dinner party, large companies are also dedicating more research and development to storage these days. Faster memory devices and complex file systems are some of the primary avenues of research at IBM's Almaden Research Center.

"The problems we're looking at aren't computationally driven per se, but more information management problems," Mark Dean, an IBM fellow and director of the Almaden Research Center, said in a recent interview. "Computation is not the hard part anymore."

At Sun, co-founder and chief computer architect Andy Bechtolsheim spends a substantial amount of his time on storage issues.

Standards is the new mantra at Sun. During the '90s, it raked in billions in revenue in selling Solaris servers with UltraSparc chips. Former CEO Scott McNealy used to talk about how there was a battle between Microsoft and the rest of humanity (with Sun being the defender of humanity.) Sun would sell some servers with Intel and AMD chips, but not enthusiastically.

When the dot-com crash hit, several of the start-ups that Sun sold gear to ended up selling the expensive machines they got from Sun on eBay. Now, Sun spends its time trying to woo customers with MySQL, the open-source database Sun bought. The strategy now is to convince customers that Sun can assemble standardized components and software better than others.

Besides, "EMC versus the rest of humanity" doesn't have much of a ring to it.