Sun's new X4500 'hybrid' data server is not a network-attached storage (NAS) box.

This is in complete opposition to what Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz implied in his blog when he wrote in early June: "...an upcoming extension to our NAS offerings, code named Thumper."

NAS it is not, for it is a complete server in its own right with four Opteron processors, 16GB of RAM, a Solaris 10 operating system, and the ZFS 128-bit file system.

Schwartz described Thumper, now formally called the X4500 product, thus: "... arguably the best example of the alignment of Sun's systems innovation is a project we'll be announcing in late June - code name Thumper.

Thumper is a SunFire server, running Solaris and its 128-bit ZFS file system, that packs 24TB of storage into a miniature package - allowing Solaris and Java applications to run directly on the storage device at breathtaking speed and price points."

Sun now calls it a hybrid data server, a combination of storage device and server. This is not really the case either. It isn't a storage device, in the sense of a drive array, a storage area network (SAN), a virtual tape library (VTL) or any other kind of discrete storage box. It isn't a data server for, after all, a data server serves data and that's pretty much what all servers do to their clients so the term is relatively meaningless.

What the X4500 is, is a server, a server with a thumping great amount of SATA disk storage, up to 24TB. That's basically it, apart from the hot-swappable drives, the 10 hot-swappable fans, the four levels of 12 drive bays, and so forth.

It packs more data storage capacity into a 4U (7-inch) rack unit than virtually anybody else except Copan with its MAID system.

The X4500 has Infiniband capability and the boxes can be clustered together. A Tokyo-located supercomputer installation has 42 of them clustered together this way. But they don't use ZFS and nor do they use Solaris 10.

For anybody to want to take advantage of clustered X4500s then they have to provide cluster management software and the applications to use the clustered boxes. Over to you, Sun ISVs (independent software vendors).

In fact, if anybody wants to use the X4500 for business intelligence, oil and gas seismic data analysis, surveillance video image analysis, video -on-demand streaming or any of the other fixed content applications Sun suggest, then they are going to have to call on Sun ISVs or write the code themselves.

Fibre Channel or SCSI drives are not available, only SATA. This means that only applications needing data stored on SATA drives should be viewed as potential X4500 applications.

For these applications Sun is saying you do not need NAS and you certainly don't need a SAN. You don't need shared storage at all. You need direct-attached storage, lots of it, and the X4500 has it.

That's one way to cut down the EMC and other storage competitors' attach rate in Sun's customer base. If you don't need a SAN or NAS for these fixed content applications then you don't need EMC or NetApp for them.

Sun isn't saying you should abandon storage consolidation ideas, for these are data centre machines, but it is certainly saying 'think X4500 and DAS for fixed content applications where SATA storage is acceptable and don't default to NAS or SAN'.

The X4500 will give your application fast access to data - there is up to 2GB/sec disk<->memory bandwidth - and cheap access to data. An X4500 can cost less than $2/GB and that includes the processors and the operating system/file system. It's a a third of the price of Sun's own 5300 NAS product.

This is no new kind of storage device. This is no fancy concept of doing the processing close to the storage. It is a return to the traditional server model, utilising DAS storage, with SATA drives to provide fast access to lots of capacity at a low cost.

It's not as if there is a fancy and fast switching fabric between the drives and the X4500's RAM. It's just a bus structure with ZFS striping data across all the drives. That increases the read speed of large files.

So ... where is Sun's defensible, long-term, intellectual property in the X4500? Is it ZFS? But you don't need a 128-bit file system to handle 24TB of storage. Is it in the clustering? But there is no Sun clustering IP in this announcement. Where is the solid, defensible IP?

Could we expect other server suppliers to go the same route? If Sun really has spotted a gap in the market then, why not? They too can add lots of SATA capacity to a rack unit fitted with a few server processors.

Sun may be relying on the speed of its entry to the market to provide it with its competitive advantage. I rather wonder if there is more to come. Why is ZFS there at all? Why are the Infiniband ports there at all? What happens if Solaris 10 containers are used to run lots of different applications each with access to their own pot in the X4500's DAS silo? Could the X4500 be part of a grid processing/storage system?

Or is just a great traditional server which could be used in lots of ways with its fast processors and cheap/fast storage?

Welcome to the X4500. It's a bit of an enigma.