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Sun exec hopes to elevate storage

Mark Canepa, newly appointed to lead Sun Microsystems' storage business, hopes the strategy Sun used to vanquish server rivals will work in his new job as well.

Mark Canepa, newly appointed to lead Sun Microsystems' storage business, hopes the strategy Sun used to vanquish server rivals will work in his new job as well.

Under Canepa's tenure, Sun's workstation and low-end server business grew despite strong competition from Windows and Linux systems. Sun's revenue from its low-end servers grew 44 percent to $4.7 billion from 1999 to 2000, second only to Compaq Computer, according to research firm IDC. Now Canepa's new job is to work a similar transformation for Sun's storage business.

Analysts have been lukewarm about Sun's storage products at the same time they've lauded storage companies' prospects. But Canepa doesn't expect major changes to Sun's storage plan.

"The market's moved pretty quickly. There may be some pretty tweaks here or there," but Canepa said in an interview that Sun has a "fundamentally sound strategy."

Canepa took over Sun's storage group on March 30, in the middle of a tumultuous time. The company's server stronghold has been weakened by the crumbling technology economy, a malaise that has spread from servers to storage-specific companies such as EMC and Network Appliance.

Though much attention once reserved for servers now is focused on increasingly independent storage products, EMC and NetApp last week were forced to warn of lowered revenue. Meanwhile, some of the basic standards of storage technology are undergoing major change.

Analysts saw Canepa's replacement of Janpieter Scheerder to be good news. "We view the management move as a clear sign Chief Executive Scott McNealy is aggressively managing storage and intends that it match Sun's industry-leading Unix server business," said Salomon Smith Barney analyst John Jones.

Though Sun plans to increase its storage sales force from 300 now to 500 by the end of the year, some analysts haven't credited McNealy with much of a grasp of the storage industry. They have derided his oft-repeated statement that "storage is a feature of the server" as "flatly inaccurate." Instead, analysts say storage is increasingly independent of the server.

Gartner analyst Robert Passmore says Canepa's biggest challenge will be to duplicate Sun's server storage success in a market in which storage is increasingly independent of servers.

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Sun has moderated its position, though, now arguing that storage is a feature of the "big frigging Webtone switch"--another McNealyism referring to the computing infrastructure necessary to ensure Web sites are available around the clock.

Sun is increasing its emphasis on standalone storage products, such as its T3, which had been code-named Purple and debuted in June. The successor, Purple 2, is expected to be released in May, according to a source familiar with the product.

But most of the storage products Sun sells still are directly attached to the server--in other words, a feature of the server, not an independent device.

"Right now 80 percent to 90 percent of all storage is shipped in some kind of direct-attached mode," Canepa said, but "Over time, we are absolutely convinced" that storage products will be accessible over a network instead of built into the server, and that an increasing fraction of computing budgets will go to storage products.

The reason these network technologies haven't caught on better is that it's been difficult to ensure that data will go where it needs to go, on time and uncorrupted, Canepa said.

It's not easy cracking the storage market, though. Sun's T3 storage system appears to have troubles in demanding situations, Jones said, and he views Sun's products as "lagging those of EMC, IBM and Hewlett-Packard."

One strategy Sun will employ is embracing industry standards rather than creating its own proprietary technology that works only with Sun products.

One change in the storage market is the arrival of new standards such as iSCSI and FCIP, adaptations of the widespread technology used to power Internet communications for use in attaching storage products to networks. Companies backing older, special-purpose standards such as Fibre Channel are facing new competition from the new technology.

Sun, which has years of experience with the Internet Protocol (IP), will embrace whatever standards emerge, Canepa said. IP has no limits in how fast it can be used to send data, but there are delays in processing IP network traffic, he said.

Regardless of what prevails, Canepa aspires to keep Sun storage growing faster than its competitors. Though he declined to say whether the storage business will have greater prominence within Sun, Canepa there is "extra-strong support at the highest levels of the company to making this business successful."