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Sun renames N1, ponders pricing switch

Customers could end up paying for the renamed N1 Grid utility-computing software according to how many devices they have, under a pricing system Sun is considering.

SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems is considering a new payment system for its utility-computing software, charging customers according to how many devices they have.

In addition, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based server maker has changed the name of its utility-computing software from N1 to N1 Grid, executives said on Wednesday. The renaming reflects Sun's plan to hasten the expansion of N1 from its current incarnation as sophisticated management software into a key part of a grander vision, in which many companies share computing power.

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In a talk at Sun's analyst conference here on Wednesday, the company's top software executive, Jonathan Schwartz, said Sun is considering a payment mechanism in which businesses would pay a fixed amount of money per year and per computing device to get access to the full suite of N1 software. He didn't specify whether the payment plan would be based on a company's entire collection of computing gear or just on the subset N1 software manages.

"We learned a lot from launching the Java Enterprise System," or JES, Schwartz said of Sun's server software, for which the company charges $100 per employee per year. He said customers now demand predictable annual costs.

Charging per box would mean that a company has to keep track of how many boxes it has, Schwartz said--not just of servers but also of storage systems, network routers, encryption accelerators, load balancers and other gear.

Sun's N1 Grid competes chiefly with IBM's on-demand technology and Hewlett-Packard's Adaptive Enterprise. All three companies have been acquiring multiple start-ups to flesh out their technology as fast as possible. Other competitors include Veritas, Microsoft and Computer Associates.

In the utility-computing vision, hardware adjusts automatically so that computing tasks are accomplished within established time limits. Meeting those "service-level agreements" requires a computing infrastructure much more flexible than usual so that hardware can be quickly reconfigured to meet changing business needs. That flexibility, in turn, leads to a future in which it's possible for companies to rent computing power from others.

In this ultimate vision, computing power could be purchased the way utilities such as electricity and water are today.

Schwartz said he recently asked a Wall Street executive if he would be willing to sell his spare computing capacity on weekends, when demand was slow. The answer: Yes, as long as security barriers were strong enough to ensure that outsiders couldn't gain unauthorized access.

Schwartz didn't indicate how much Sun was considering charging per box, per year, for N1 Grid. It's likely that as with JES, the company will try to use the pricing to pressure its competitors.

IBM's Tivoli Intelligent Orchestrator has a starting price of $20,000 and costs more when more servers are managed.

Sun currently charges for some N1 Grid software on a per-server basis. For example, its N1 Grid Service Provisioning--the software it acquired from CenterRun in 2003--costs $1,800 to $2,500 per server, said Yael Zheng, director of N1 Grid marketing, but Sun will begin a $1,000-per-server promotion when it starts selling its new UltraSparc IV-based servers in March.

A new name--and direction
The "grid" concept grew up in academic circles for linking servers together into supercomputers; Sun has sold software called Grid Engine that aids in the task. Appending the grid label to N1 reflects the belief that businesses will embrace that idea, Zheng said.

"There's a strong belief that grid is going to be adopted by more and more customers--not only in the traditional technical computing space but also in the mainstream customer space," Zheng said.

"It was always the plan to have Grid Engine become more of the N1 road map," Zheng said. "With the name change, it's going to accelerate that."

Schwarz called the software the N1 Grid System on Wednesday. That could indicate, as with JES, that customers could get the entire collection of N1 components without having to pay separately for each module.

The name change indicates that Sun could link more closely with grid standard efforts, including the Open Grid Services Architecture, or OGSA, Zheng said.

Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice said Sun's commitment to the OGSA grid standards is at about the same level as HP's: "somewhat vague and futuristic."

IBM, in contrast, relies on OGSA for some of its on-demand technology, Eunice said.

Sun has long been a fan of using standardized and open technology so that customers don't get locked in to a particular provider's products. The company is working on an N1 software development kit to let other management software use N1 Grid to control computing equipment.