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Sun repositions first plank in N1 strategy
Touching the crossbar
Sun Microsystems will today detail the first fruit from last year's acquisition of start-up Pirus Networks Inc, in the form of a storage virtualization engine which will represent the first phase of what Sun has grandly called its N1 network initiative.
N1 is a marketing label for the storage and server products and technologies Sun is developing at the moment. Other vendors have similar labels for what they are working on, such as Hewlett Packard Co's ENSA, EMC Corp's AutoIS, or IBM Corp's eLiza.
The labels are coined in an effort to differentiate each vendors' products, but across servers and storage all the major vendors are focusing on the same goals - to increase the automation of management tasks and the flexibility of systems so that resources can be easily pooled or reallocated according to customers' requirements. In storage, virtualization is the pooling of disk space across multiple arrays. As such it is a basic feature of any next-generation system.
The storage virtualization engine Sun will talk up today is the same PSX-1000 device that Pirus marketed last year, with what is very likely to have been zero sales. Pirus was founded in 1999, and by the time it was acquired by Sun late last year it had scored no OEM qualifications for its device, and was claiming no sales, only customer evaluations. That almost certainly was the result of the super bleeding-edge status of smart storage switching and the state of the IT market, rather than any deficiency of the Pirus product.
What will be news tomorrow is that the device is to be sold with the backing of Sun's support organization. It will be rolled out by Sun in the first quarter this year running a virtualization application. At some later date it will also host applications such as asynchronous replication, file systems, and back-up and restore, Sun said yesterday.
Since Mark Canepas moved over from Sun's server business almost two years ago to head up the company's storage division, he has been working hard to boost the flagging performance of the unit. One of his achievements has been to boost Sun's revenue share of the external RAID systems market worldwide from 5.7% to 6.8% between 2001 and 2002, according to IDC's estimate.
Another was to persuade Sun to accept what multiple sources said last year was a sizeable $150m undisclosed price tag for Pirus. Buying a smart-switching start-up reinforced Sun's promise that it had become very serious about storage. Unfortunately, precisely because Sun is still coming from some way behind, it must reposition the Pirus hardware as an "application platform," rather than "the industry's first storage utility switch," as Pirus originally described it.
Depending on the sophistication of the hardware they are selling, suppliers are defining smart switches as anything from a switch that can handle multiple protocols to one that hosts applications that process the data being carried by the switch, such as virtualization or volume management. The alleged advantages of moving these applications onto a switch within the network - rather than running them on servers from outside the network - is the reduction in the number of devices that have to managed, and the elimination of bottlenecks which could limit data throughput. These benefits have yet to be measured against any hidden disadvantages, of course.
Storage networking giant Brocade Communications Systems Inc is promising to ship smart, application-hosting switches this year. The storage switches made by Cisco Systems Inc which IBM Corp will begin reselling in around two months' time will be able to support multiple protocols in the summer, and later will be able to host applications.
Faced with this competition, Sun is backing off. While it was good for Pirus as a specialist start-up to compare its hardware to that of Cisco, it is no longer true now that Pirus is a part of Sun. Competing for mindshare and attention in a brand new storage networking arena, with no track record in either networking or storage, Sun is very likely to be eclipsed by the heavyweight presences of Brocade and Cisco.
Former Pirus CEO Rich Napolitano who is now Sun's vice president of data services platform said this week: "As Pirus, we pointed to Cisco as our competition, because it looked good. But when you actually look at what we have, it's very different. It's a system designed to be a computational application environment."
What exactly is the difference between Cisco and Brocade switches that can host storage applications, and the Sun device which has multiple ports, was formerly called a switch, and which also hosts applications?
"We have CPUs [IBM PowerPC processors] in front of every port. Cisco and Brocade have ASICs. That's a fundamental difference," Napolitano said. Applications originally written to run on server CPUs - such as say the FalconStor virtualization software which Brocade promises will run on its smart switch - won't run well on ASICs, if at all, the Sun chief claimed. "Show me the applications they have running. Have you ever programmed to an ASIC? It's a very hard thing to do," he said.
If the PSX-1000 is not a smart switch but is instead a "platform" for data processing applications, then it invites comparison to existing server-based virtualization appliances from suppliers such as FalconStor or DataCore. Here, Napolitano repeated Pirus' former arguments about the better throughput of the PSX-1000. Because it includes a crossbar device which connects its ports to the application-hosting processors, the box "can do hundreds of thousands of I/Os per second, an order of magnitude greater than a general purpose server," he promised. That crossbar according to Napolitano will allow multiple CPUs in the PSX-1000 to deliver linear performance scaling.