Sun Microsystems plans later this month to unveil its first ever content switch: a load-balancing and SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) acceleration switch based on the Nauticus N2000 products it acquired in January of this year.

At the time of Sun's $12 million purchase of Nauticus Networks, it was widely assumed that Sun would be integrating the Nauticus technology into its server products, but the question of whether or not Sun would move forward with a switch product of its own remained unanswered.

Sun plans to ship its new switch by the end of the year, and will be delivering early versions of the product to select customers later this month, said John Fowler, the executive vice president of Sun's Network Systems Group.

Rather than simply shuttling network traffic from point to point, content switches are aware of the content of the network traffic they switch and are designed to perform certain network processing tasks, such as server load balancing or SSL encryption, that would otherwise bog down application servers.

"The Nauticus switch allows us to have a classic load balancing switch with much higher performance and security than you would normally see in these products," said Fowler. The Sun-branded switch will be integrated with Sun's N1 management software, "so it all works together as a seamless whole," he said.

"What we can do with this box is we run security so fast that you can always be secure. So you don't have to worry about your banking site, for example, being spoofed because it's always going to be secure."

The switch also has a unique virtualisation capability that allows customers to run a number of disparate networks on a single switch, Fowler added. "It has the ability to partition and have a whole bunch of different routing domains or policy domains. This is something that other switches can't do."

Until now, the only networking products that Sun has sold have been networking cards for its systems, a virtualisation switch for the company's StorEdge 6920 storage system, and network switching products that go into Sun's blade servers. Its decision to move into the content switch market came as a surprise to some analysts, who say that the move runs the risk of antagonising Cisco, a long-time Sun partner, which paid $5.7 billion in stock four years ago to acquire content switch vendor ArrowPoint Communications.

"Sun is not, as I understand their business, very much into the network switch business, and they have a lot of friends, partners, and allies that are in that networking business," said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst with Illuminata. Eunice added that he had been under the impression that Sun was not going to market its own switch.

Others say Sun's move should not come as a complete surprise. "I'm sure there are some high-level discussions, with people asking, 'Why is Sun competing with us in this market', but this happens all the time," said Joel Conover, principal analyst with Current Analysis. The real trick for Sun will be to avoid confusion in its sales channel now that it is offering products that compete with its partners, he said.

Sun is still working out marketing details like pricing and a name for the switch, company officials said.