Sun hopes for better storage with Honeycomb

Undaunted by past flubs, firm hopes new system will speed data retrieval and make disk failure a nearly ignorable event. Photo: Sun's new gear

Sun Microsystems, undaunted by past flubs in its storage system efforts, is working on a new project, dubbed Honeycomb, that aims to improve reliability and performance.

The Honeycomb technology, which will go on sale later this year, has two goals: to speed data-retrieval tasks such as searching and to make disk failure a nearly ignorable event, said Mark Canepa, executive vice president of Sun's storage group.

Key to the search-related promise of Honeycomb is descriptive information called metadata. When a computer stores a file, it includes some basic metadata, such as the time the file was written or modified, but Sun is among those pushing for vastly more elaborate--and therefore useful--metadata.


What's new:
Undaunted by past flubs, Sun Microsystems is working on a new storage technology, "Honeycomb," that it hopes will speed data-retrieval tasks such as searching and make disk failure a nearly ignorable event.

Bottom line:
With recent partnerships and acquisitions, Sun is in a better position in the storage field than it has been in the past, and Honeycomb's approach to metadata and information retrieval could further improve the firm's standing. Still, Honeycomb faces competition from giant EMC, Hewlett-Packard, StorageTek and start-up Permabit.

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A prime market for this technology is the health care arena, where urgency, complexity and stringent federal regulations put a premium on the ability to retrieve specific data. For example, using metadata to rapidly winnow search results, "I can find females with a particular type of cancer for whom I can see X-rays," said Mike Davis, Honeycomb's senior product manager.

The disk failure side of the equation has to do with storing data across hundreds or large numbers of disks, far more than are found in currently popular RAID, or redundant array of inexpensive disks, systems. The idea behind both approaches: Don't put all your eggs in one basket.

At the end of 2004, Sun transferred the Honeycomb team from Sun Labs to its product group. Honeycomb technology will be brought to market both as new standalone systems and as an improvement to existing midrange models, Canepa said.

Sun and storage
Sun, which primarily sells servers and server software, sees the world somewhat differently from storage specialists such as EMC. Sun has argued for years that it's better to buy an integrated system rather than individual components that must be interconnected by hand.

But the company has had a hard time selling that vision when it comes to storage. A year ago, Chief Executive Scott McNealy said the storage attach rate--the storage revenue as a fraction of server revenue--should be 90 percent to 100 percent. Yet from the last quarters of 2003 to 2004, that figure declined from 24 percent to 22 percent.

For some time Sun has tried to penetrate the storage market, but it's had problems, with products such as the A7000 failing. In response, the company inked a deal to resell Hitachi Data Systems' high-end storage systems, acquired Pirus Networks for midrange systems and began reselling Dot Hill lower-end systems. In addition, Sun licensed technology and bought engineering services from storage specialist Procom Technologies in 2004.

With storage hardware, "They're in better shape than they have been for a long time," said Data Mobility Group analyst John Webster.

And metadata tools could be a very useful addition, especially for customers interested in processing data that's retrieved in real time,

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