Sun Microsystems will release important but delayed server software Dec. 5, addressing a weakness in its effort to shape its products to ever-higher computing demands.
Sun will announce "Full Moon," the code name for SunCluster 3.0 software for sharing jobs across several servers, said Andy Ingram, head of marketing for Sun's Solaris operating system. It's part of the company's effort to allow customers to run their own software while freeing them from worrying about the hardware it's running on, he said.
It's taken a long time for Sun to coax Full Moon to rise, however. The project has been five years in the making, Ingram said.
"Originally, the plan was to bring it out on Solaris 7, but the decision was made to bring it out on Solaris 8 instead," Ingram said. "That put about seven to nine months into the schedule."
In the meantime, Sun has been relying on SunCluster 2.2, a product that most analysts agreed didn't live up to Sun's aggressive efforts to position itself as the prime purveyor of high-end servers with stratospheric price tags and dozens of processors. These computers run bank databases, mammoth manufacturing operations and other jobs that demand around-the-clock uptime.
Clustering software, which shares computing jobs among a group of computers, has been one way to ensure that computing services remain running and available to those who need them. But Sun isn't the only one pushing the clustering concept.
Sun, though the dominant seller of Unix servers, doesn't have much of a track record in clustering compared with those of some competitors. Compaq Computer, with its OpenVMS and Tru64 Unix operating systems and its ultra-high-end Tandem computer, has long been a respected force in clustering software. And Santa Cruz Operation, though financially struggling, benefited from some of Compaq's expertise in developing its NonStop Cluster software for its UnixWare operating system.
Newcomers also hope to keep Sun from conquering the market. Microsoft has been trying for years to develop clustering software, and its newest Windows 2000 Datacenter version can run tasks in clusters with as many as four nodes.
Linux, which shares Solaris' Unix roots, also is a new domain for clustering as Linux slowly becomes more mature and better able to take advantage of high-end server features.
Red Hat, the top Linux seller, has launched its own foray into clustering software. Mission Critical Linux lured many Compaq employees to its effort. Steeleye has its own product, LifeKeeper. And Caldera Systems' acquisition of Santa Cruz Operation hints that SCO's clustering software might come to Linux as well.
Ingram acknowledged the weakness of SunCluster 2.2. "We were investing...effort in 3.0 rather than continuing to flesh out all the feature sets of 2.2," he said.
Sun's customers also have been relying on software company Veritas to provide file system support needed for these high-end systems. Support for Veritas' VXFS and Sun's UFS file systems will continue with version 3.0.
With 3.0 comes a new, more modular philosophy, though. Sun is separating the job the server runs from the network connections on one hand and the data storage system on the other, Ingram said.
This change makes it easier for several computers, or several partitions of one computer, to share network and storage resources, and therefore makes it easier to move jobs around from one node in a cluster to another, he said. In addition, each node on the cluster shares the same Internet address, he said.
"I can put a process anywhere on the cluster. If I move it from node A to node B, the cluster understands," he said.
That ease of movement also is key to guaranteeing that a server can meet increasing computing demands. If a task suddenly requires vastly increased computing power, other nodes in a cluster can quickly be called upon to handle the load.
Sun also is boasting that it's easier to administer the new version, Ingram said. For example, it takes about a minute and a half for a customer to register a software job with the cluster, he said.
SunCluster 3.0 ties more deeply into the operating system, Ingram said, shortening the "failover" delay when one computer takes over for another. One server monitoring the health of another now can tell within 10 seconds or less whether it needs to take the reins, a process that took about 90 seconds with version 2.2.
And as expected, SunCluster 3.0 increases the number of computers that can make up a cluster from four to eight, he said, meaning that there are more backup computers to pick up the load in case one server fails.
Sun's clustering software is only half of the company's new "software-as-a-service" philosophy. The other half is another future software product called iChange, which lets companies manage large numbers of servers that all share the same task, Ingram said. iChange lets administrators easily try out new software and spread updates to all the servers of a certain category, he said.