Sun N1 plan to emerge first in blades

Sun Microsystems' first blade servers will appear early in 2003, carrying the initial elements of the company's N1 plan to make large complexes of computers behave like a single resource.

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Stephen Shankland
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SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems' first blade servers will appear early in 2003, carrying the initial elements of the company's N1 plan to make large complexes of computers behave like a single resource.

Blade servers, which pack several slim systems into a single enclosure, are essentially a miniature version of the complex and expensive "data centers" where corporations house their most powerful computers and precious data. As such, they're the perfect technology for Sun to debut its N1 plan, which is designed to get as much use as possible out of those computing resources with minimal administrative costs, Steve MacKay, vice president of N1 for Sun, said at a media event Monday.

"Blades are more than just a computing box; they're really more of a microcosm of a data center," MacKay said. "We're going to launch an N1-enabled blade system in the first part of 2003."

Sun expected its blade servers to debut in 2002, but granted itself an extension to early 2003. Dell Computer, IBM and Hewlett-Packard have different blade designs in the market, lower-end servers with one or two Intel processors.

Sun debuted its N1 plan in February. The project is the centerpiece of the company's effort to lower costs for customers of running data centers packed with computing equipment. The project is also aimed at convincing customers that Sun is ahead of competitors in its technology and vision. Sun's years-long N1 plan ultimately will let customers assign computing tasks to vast pools of servers, storage systems and network equipment, without their having to worry about which individual piece of hardware is being used.

The goal of N1 is to increase the "utilization" of each piece of hardware--the extent to which it uses its full capacity. Today, much equipment runs largely idle most of the time; customers often must buy more capacity than they need to accommodate future growth or spikes in demand, such as holiday shopping surges on a Web site.

N1 competes with two other works-in-progress, HP's Utility Data Center effort and IBM's autonomic computing technology project.

Though Sun prefers to use industry standards in its technology, so far it appears Sun, HP and IBM don't have cooperation in mind for these projects. Analysts have accused Sun of using N1 to lock customers into its hardware. Lock-in is a cardinal sin in Sun's religion; the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company aims marketing barbs at rivals IBM and Microsoft, accusing them of that strategy while boasting that its customers can easily exchange technology if they desire.

Opportunities for multicompany cooperation include standardizing what Sun calls "telemetry" interfaces to hardware--a regular way that N1 software could find out the computing load on a server, the space left on a storage system, or the traffic through a network switch. Anil Gadre, Sun's vice president of software business and marketing, hinted that Sun may try to initiate some public telemetry work.

"We're not ready to talk about ventures into open source and more community involvement today," Gadre said. Sun in the past has launched several open-source efforts--projects in which anyone may freely see, change, use and redistribute software--to try to further its agenda.

Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy said in November that Sun will rely on outside companies to help supply necessary software components for the N1 plan. On Monday, though, MacKay said Sun will supply everything a customer needs to install a basic version of N1, but that customers will save more money if they buy hardware and software with N1 features.

You can't lean on friends
"We're not relying on the industry to come up with a lot of support, because we've seen the difficulties with that approach," MacKay said. "We will make it work with the (equipment) out there."

Equipment designed to work with N1 will be better, though, MacKay promised. "If you deploy N1, you'll achieve x percent savings in data center costs. If you also put components in there that are N1-enhanced, you can get a lot more than x percent," he said.

A key step in N1 is "virtualization," which shields a computing task from the details of the hardware it's running on. This permits many computing jobs to be handled by a pool of computing equipment rather than by a specific system. Sun acquired two virtualization start-ups, Terraspring and Pirus Networks, to make its N1 vision possible.

Pirus sells hardware and software that virtualizes different types of storage systems from various manufacturers. Terraspring has software that keeps track of all the computing equipment in a data center and lets administrators select and prepare systems for new jobs, a process called "provisioning."

HP uses the Terraspring software--but only the first version of a product that's now in its third generation, said Ashar Aziz, the former Sun engineer who founded Terraspring and who now is back at Sun. The first version was geared to work with high-end multiprocessor servers; later versions, to which HP does not have rights, add support for smaller servers such as those that deliver Web pages, Aziz said.

The first version of Terraspring's software also had a "fairly horrendous rewiring requirement," forcing customers to install new networking equipment and to remove hard drives from servers, Aziz said. In later versions, "a lot of that has gone away."

The first stages of N1 that customers will see are blade servers and Sun services to help customers prepare for N1, MacKay said. Technologically, the first stage will focus on virtualization.

The second stage, coming by late 2003, will focus on provisioning and supporting more computing equipment. The last phase, which will be done by 2004, should bring automation that can rely on policies--for example, a customer setting the system to give processing priority to a billing system at the end of the month when it demands more resources, MacKay said.