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Sun's 'Honeycomb' storage late, but imminent?

Company expects the storage technology will increase performance and reliability.

"Honeycomb," a storage technology that Sun Microsystems expects will increase performance and reliability, is late to arrive, but it's a strong candidate for an announcement next week.

Sun's quarterly product launch event takes place Tuesday in Washington, D.C., and will have an emphasis on storage products. The Honeycomb systems had been scheduled to arrive in 2005, according to Mark Canepa, executive vice president of Sun's storage group.

Photo: Honeycomb modules
This image shows three
5.25-inch-tall Honeycomb modules.

Storage has for some time been a sore point for Sun. The company has long believed in selling every product needed to run the computing equipment in a large corporate data center, yet it hasn't made much headway beyond servers. One of the major reasons Sun acquired Storage Technology in 2005 was to gain access to a larger sales force with a long list of existing customers.

Storage is even more important now as Sun seeks to recover financially and justify its acquisition of StorageTek last August, which cost about $3 billion once StorageTek's cash was factored out. A successful integration of StorageTek is among three top priorities of Sun's returned Chief Financial Officer Mike Lehman.

"I think the StorageTek acquisition gives them the opportunity to go outside their base, but they've got to figure a way to get the combined sales force to make that happen," said John Webster, an analyst with the Data Mobility Group. "Certainly they're now into IBM's mainframe storage customer base. We'll see if they can capitalize on that."

Sun had planned to sell Honeycomb technology both as new standalone systems and in an upgrade to existing midrange storage products being redesigned to shift from Intel's Xeon processors to Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron.

Sun declined to comment on unannounced products.

A chief promise of Honeycomb is the inclusion of metadata, information that describes properties of data that's stored on the system. Textual data such as a database of customers can be searched relatively easily, but using metadata lets customers organize so-called unstructured data such as X-ray images or audio recordings.

When it comes to this market, sometimes called content-addressable storage (CAS), Sun faces plenty of competitors, including EMC, IBM and Hewlett-Packard. But the acquisition of StorageTek meant eliminating one rival, and StorageTek had an alliance with CAS specialist Permabit.

Content-addressable storage is an attempt to make lemons out of lemonade as companies work to comply with regulations requiring them to archive financial, medical and other information, Webster said. "There's pressure from the CIO level that says, 'If I have to spend all this money on compliance and protecting myself from legal discovery, and I have to put all this stuff away forever, is there at least some business value I can extract?'"

To improve reliability, the Honeycomb system uses a more elaborate version of a common storage technology called RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks). Conventional RAID splits data across multiple disks so information is preserved even if one disk fails, but Honeycomb can tolerate multiple failures.