Sun and Network Appliance have both announced content-focused products. But their approaches are quite different, reflecting, we might suppose, NetApp's storage product strength and Sun's relative storage product weakness. Sun's recent announcements provide a good base for strengthening its storage offer substantially.

NetApp's LockVault is a content-addressable store (CAS) aimed at the compliance-type market for unstructured data. Since the data has little or no structure then storing it can present problems of duplicating data. Several people may have copies of the same word document for example, or near-identical copies, such as an employee regulations document or operations manual.

Content-addressable stores use hashing algorithms to uniquely identify blocks of such data. Any duplicates can be identified by comparing hash values. The stored data for a duplicated item is simply a pointer to the first one in the store. This can save lots of space. It can also be used for compliance purposes, as NetApp is quick to point out.

EMC's Centera was the device that first established CAS as a separate storage product class. It's expense opened up an opportunity for suppliers such as Archivas, Permabit, Avamar and Exagrid also offer CAS facilities, so NetApp is quite late to the market.

What is NetApp offering? It states that 'LockVault allows customers to make permanent WORM backups of their unstructured data, by simply copying and storing only the unique blocks that have been written since the most recent incremental backup.' There is also a Compliance Journal for an audit trail.

There are online compliant backups of unstructured data at multiple times. What does 'compliant backup' mean? NetApp says the stored data is compliant with SEC Rule 17a-4. So unless your unstructured data falls under the ambit of this USA financial services regulation it appears that LockVault may not be for you.

If it is for you then NetApp will gladly tell you of a competing tape-based product system that will use up 907TB of storage compared to LOckVault's 41TB. NetApp also has its SnapMirror product included for WORM-to-WORM remote replication, thus further protecting the data.

The key points here are that block-level backup is included, remote data copying is ensured and customers can be sure they will comply with the SEC regulation. The software has a price of around $60,000 and is for customers with between 20,000 and 200,000 employees - enterprise class clearly.

And Sun?
Sun has announced a Content Infrastructure System. Let's make one thing clear straight away. This is not CAS technology. It is a reference architecture set specifying Sun and partner hardware and software products that produce a complete customer-ready content system. What does 'content' mean here? For Sun content is data of a certain kind that passes through an information lifecycle and may well be subject to compliance regulations.

One reference system is a Content Archiving System - doesn't it strike you as slightly mischevious that the acronym of this is CAS? Sun says it provides continuous backup, policy-based data migration and is based on open standards and provides self-service restore. The main components include partner applications running on Sun servers with SAM-FS (policy and archiving services software) operating across a SAN fabric to tiered storage devices.

Sun says that fuller offerings will come shortly, particularly one for regulated enviroments where compliance will be a major factor.

Thus Sun is not offering any specific hardware/software products that employ content-addressing technology. In general customer terms Sun clearly has the start of a content-based technology. But in our storage industry terms Sun doesn't have a content storage product offering that can rival anything offered by Avamar, EMC, Exagrid, NetApp or Permabit.

The main weakness which these companies may be quick to latch on to is that the Sun-based offering should consume far more storage than a true CAS-based offering. A second one is the Sun-based offering may be subject to multiple finger-pointing syndrome if problems occur.

Now that Sun has begun building a far stronger storage product offering than heretofore these concerns may have a short shelf life.