Sun and the Treacherous Storage Market

Sun's Storage 7000 push may lack a crucial component -- vision -- according to one storage analyst.

Sun Microsystems wasn't a stellar performer in enterprise storage this year, making it easy to forget that the Unix giant came into seemingly can't-miss storage know-how when it acquired the former Storage Technology Corp. (StorageTek) more than three years ago.

In fact, Sun's StorageTek acquisition is seen by some as an unwelcome drag on the company's bottom line. During the quarter just past, for example, Sun took a $1.445 billion non-cash charge that it attributed to its $4.1 billion purchase of StorageTek. (That accounted for the bulk of $1.667 billion loss that Sun posted in its fiscal Q1 of 2009, which concluded September 28.)

One upshot of this, according to David Hill, a veteran analyst with storage consultancy The Mesabi Group, is a sense that the acquisition which "was supposed to help move Sun into the storage big leagues has suffered a serious setback or even failed." Buying StorageTek was a bold move on Sun's part, Hill allows, particularly as it marked a distinct departure from the system-hardware-first mentality of most traditional server OEMs.

"Sun tried to escape that [hardware-first] mold in the StorageTek deal but encountered a new problem along the way. Storage-focused companies including EMC, HDS, Quantum, and StorageTek are all used to selling on any server platform. Sun could have learned from that dynamic and leveraged StorageTek as a platform for driving sales of its disk storage products in markets and among clients other than Sun legacy customers. Now some of that has taken place, but not to the degree that it probably should have," he comments.

Sun's announcement last week of its new appliances tackles the issue. Sun announced three new Storage 7000 deliverables: its Sun Storage 7110, 7210, and 7410 were designed to support a heterogeneous mix of operating environments. The Sun Storage 7000 appliances ship with built-in high-speed networking and tape connectivity features.

Sun says its new appliances deliver compelling -- and potentially transformative -- price/performance value. "A current customer that uses one of our competitive products out there, be it [a product from] NetApp or EMC, for the price that they would pay just to add more disk, they could buy a brand new [Sun Storage 7000 system] … with all of the functionality and all of the software -- and more capacity -- for the same price. That's a dramatic cost advantage," says Ray Austin, group manager for storage product marketing with Sun.

The Storage 7000 series is part of Sun's new Open Storage push, which Austin says constitutes a distinct departure from Sun's traditional storage focus. Open Storage combine's core Sun IP -- such as OpenSolaris, which boasts built-in diagnostic (via Solaris' estimable DTrace technology) and storage management features (via Solaris' equally estimable ZFS file system) -- with general compute hard disk, solid state disk (SSD), controller, and other resources.

One goal, Austin says, is to avoid vendor lock-in. Open Storage solutions are designed to plug into any operating environment and support an array of connectivity intefaces, including SCSI, iSCSI, iSNS, Fibre Channel (FC) , FC over Ethernet (FCoE), InfiniBand, and Serial Attached SCSI (SAS).

It's the Open Storage manageability feature set that Austin is most enthused about. "If you take something like DTrace in Solaris, it's basically a bunch of instrumentation, It's a bunch of probes in the kernel itself that [can tell you] down to the file level what your performance characteriscts are. [It] even can tell you down to the networking level, down to the file system level, down to the CPU level of the storage device," Austin says.

"With Sun Open Storage, you can actually instrument your performance just by drilling-down and asking a few questions. The system provides real-time [feedback] and almost dynamically instruments where the bottlenecks are coming from. You're getting a very real-time and dynamic set of analytics."

Hill is only partially convinced. For one thing, he argues, the announcement seems to raise as many questions as it answers: for example, how does the new Storage appliance line fit in with Sun's other storage products? How does Sun plan to sell and market its distinct storage offerings? There's also the all-important Vision Question, Hill contends.

"What kind of universal themes can Sun use to focus its own internal efforts and get customers excited? EMC uses information governance as one of its themes, HP focuses on the new generation data center, and IBM has numerous focal points including the Next Generation Data Center and Information Infrastructures," he points out. "While Sun needs to articulate to its customers -- and its employees -- why a Sun solution, not just a product, is the way to go, the company's efforts have been less than stellar."

Technologically, he concedes, there's a lot to like about the new Storage 7000 offerings. The compact Storage 7110 ships with 2 TB of storage, while the scale-up Storage 7210 aims for the mid-range, maxing out at 48 TB and including support for write-optimized solid state disks (SSDs. The high-end Storage 7410, finally, supports up to a half petabyte (PB) of capacity and includes support for both write- and read-optimized SSDs.

"Sun continues to be a technologically strong IT vendor and still has the ability to come up with creative and innovative products, as illustrated by the introduction of the Sun Storage 7000," he says. "But point products alone -- no matter how capable -- are not enough."

Austin disagrees. First of all, he argues, the Storage 7000 series is not a point product; it's part of Sun's Open Storage push. Open Storage, Austin contends, does amount to a strategic vision, inasmuch as it marks a fundamental shift away from Sun's storage status quo.

"We do look at Open Storage as a strategic vision for Sun -- being able to leverage our core assets around DTrace and ZFS and Solaris and all of the benefits that these assets provide for storage. Up until recently, we've traditionally OEM-ed products from certain vendors. Of course, we provided some IP around the design and the packaging and the software, but the new Open Storage [effort] is a real change," he says.

More to the point, Austin concludes, OpenStorage comprises a vision precisely because Sun expects it it be a highly profitable practice in the future, its Q1 2009 StorageTek-related write-down notwithstanding.

"I can't address the question around the write-down. That's not my department. I can say [that] there's been a significant focus around storage being the area where Sun can expect to generate significant revenue growth in the near future. If you look at [our entire] portfolio, the products within our portfolio, a lot of our new revenue growth products are coming from open storage, so we have high expectations."