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Sun to set path for virtual servers

The server giant plans to reveal this week a timeline for N1, a project to develop software that will let servers and storage devices act as one big virtual mainframe.

Sun Microsystems plans to detail a timeline Thursday for N1, a sweeping software strategy that will let administrators create virtual mainframes out of their existing computer resources.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based server maker announced its N1 initiative in February but has offered little detail since. On Thursday, at its SunNetwork 2002 conference in San Francisco, Sun plans to describe N1 milestones running through 2005, a source familiar with the project said.

Under the planned schedule, 2002 and 2003 will see Sun provide the infrastructure for N1, "virtualization" software that is used to join multiple servers or storage devices into a single pool. Ideally, administrators would be able to outline a function, such as creating a parts inventory database, and N1 would identify the servers, storage devices and other technology required to make it happen.

Sun declined to comment for this story.

In 2003 to 2004, Sun plans to define how computing services run atop this virtual computer and tap into the resources they need. Within the following two years, the company intends to set up policies so administrators can guarantee services will get the resources they need.

"It is hugely ambitious," said Illuminata analyst James Governor of Sun's N1 plan. But the company has a good track record for being able to stick to a task until it's done, he said. "They have delivered on their ambitions multiple times."

Sun isn't alone in trying to simplify the operations at "data centers," the tightly controlled facilities that house the core of corporate computing systems. Its two biggest competitors, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, have similar efforts underway called "autonomic computing" and "utility data center," respectively.

HP and IBM have two advantages over Sun when it comes to these projects, Governor said. First, they each have sprawling server and storage lines and thus have firsthand experience with the perils of complexity. "They're living the pain their customers are living," he said.

Second, IBM and HP have management software--IBM's Tivoli and HP's OpenView--that can control not only their equipment but other companies' products as well. Sun lacks software with that capability.

Sun can draw on the help of partners, though. As previously reported, the server maker is working on N1 partnerships with BMC, Oracle, PeopleSoft, i2 and SAP for software; Cisco Systems for networking; and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, Electronic Data Systems and Deloitte Consulting for helping customers install N1.