Sun shines spotlight on storage

Adapting Galaxy servers, adding brains to storage systems among plans to turn around weak part of business.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise Processors | Semiconductors | Web browsers | Quantum computing | Supercomputers | AI | 3D printing | Drones | Computer science | Physics | Programming | Materials science | USB | UWB | Android | Digital photography | Science Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
4 min read
Sun Microsystems executives on Tuesday turned attention to the company's storage products, a business with a checkered past but newly important future.

Sun Chairman and ex-Chief Executive Scott McNealy headlined a quarterly announcement Tuesday in Washington, D.C., where the company discussed new hardware systems, software abilities, and integration between Sun and the StorageTek products the company acquired.

Sun hasn't made major inroads against storage specialists such as EMC and Network Appliance or against storage products from Hewlett-Packard and IBM, but the company doggedly refuses to give up on its mission to supply almost everything a data center operator needs. It upped the ante by acquiring StorageTek in 2005 in a move that provided Sun with much-needed revenue growth but drained $3 billion in cash from its coffers.

Sun is counting on a new generation of products to help turn things around. One is the StorageTek 5320 NAS, a midrange network-attached storage system that costs $50,000 for a 2-terabyte entry model--though the company will let customers try it free for 60 days under an expanded try-and-buy program.

The 5320 is emblematic of Sun's attempt to integrate various technology assets into a useful storage product. It bears the StorageTek brand that the company is adopting for all its products in an attempt to profit from that company's greater penetration in the storage market. The 5320's operating system comes from Sun's purchase of Procom assets in 2005, but Sun will move it to its Solaris operating system in coming quarters, said Mark Canepa, executive vice president of Sun's Data Management Group.

And the 5320 uses central electronics taken from Advanced Micro Devices Opteron-based "Galaxy" line of x86 servers that Sun began selling last year. Its predecessor, the 5310, used Intel chips.

More Galaxy-based Opteron systems are in the works, including the delayed "Honeycomb" system, which is designed to promulgate Sun's idea that storage should take on processing chores that servers handle today.

"If you want to do something with the data today, you move the data to the server and do something. The new approach is move the computation to the storage," Canepa said.

The approach relies on extra labels on data called metadata that gives a handle on otherwise nontextual information such as medical X-rays or an archive of baseball videos.

"If I want all of Curt Schilling's curveball pitches, the system can search for those," Canepa said.

Honeycomb systems had been due in 2005, but now are scheduled to arrive "within the next few quarters," Canepa said. "At this point, we want to make sure we get it right (and) to marry it correctly to the right applications."

Also in the works is Project Thumper, which is designed to help store data that's not used for database transactions or that's not mission-critical, Sun said.

Sun also is working to make sure its storage can deal well with a world where individual servers are carved up into numerous virtual machines, a major trend in the computing industry.

"Data centers are moving from a few dozen reasonably well-behaved servers (to) a data center with tens of thousands of applications, all of which want to access storage," Canepa said. "You've got to be able to take one large storage capability and virtualize it into tens of thousands of separate ones."

A major item on Canepa's agenda--and on that of Chief Financial Officer Mike Lehman--is ensuring the StorageTek integration works. Canepa said the formerly separate companies have a unified product plan, sales team, services team and sales incentive plan.

In other storage-related announcements:

• Sun has integrated its identity management software with StorageTek tape technology. The result: "Only the right people with the right rights can access the data," Canepa said.

• Sun announced a ship date for its delayed ZFS, or Zettabyte File System, which is software that governs how information is read and read from storage systems. Sun plans to release ZFS in an update to Solaris 10 due in June, and make computers able to boot from ZFS-formatted disks by the end of the year. ZFS has a 128-bit address space that gives it "virtually unlimited data capacity," Sun boasts, while nipping data transfer errors in the bud, easing management tasks, and featuring a design Sun projects will last 20 to 30 years.

• Sun released the new Virtual Storage Manager 5 and a lower-cost VSM 4e, tape products that connect to mainframes. One important reason for acquiring StorageTek was to penetrate IBM mainframe customer accounts, Sun has said.

• Sun tape drives also will include built-in encryption "at prices that make it look essentially invisible," Canepa said. That's an important factor for customers who live in terror of losing a tape packed with sensitive records.