What Sun lacks in size as a storage vendor it is trying to make up for with innovation, as it rolls out a series of appliances that include management software and solid-state disks.
The Sun Storage 7000 line of three systems, with capacities ranging from 2TB to 576TB, brings homegrown Sun technology to a storage business that has been built mostly through the acquisitions of StorageTek and other companies.
The appliances run Sun's Open Solaris and ZFS (Zettabyte File System) on industry-standard x86 computing hardware and include monitoring and management software developed by Sun's FISHworks (Fully Integrated Software and Hardware) group. Sun claims the appliances offer higher performance, lower cost and a fraction of the installation time of competing systems.
Sun's storage business is one of the fastest-growing parts of the company but still makes up only a relatively small part of its operations. It's dwarfed by competitors such as EMC and Hewlett-Packard. Still, the fast-growing demand for storage capacity represents a healthy opportunity for Sun, which lost nearly $1.7 billion (approx £1.075 billion) in the quarter ended September 28 as its revenue fell more than 7 percent.
The Sun Storage 7000 line is designed to be easy to manage and to provide detailed information about the use of the storage. For example, the FISHworks software can show which users are accessing the device for which applications, and which files they are using, said Graham Lovell, senior director of open storage at Sun. IT managers can narrow down the causes of problems by comparing detailed activity information against statistics about typical activity, he said.
For high performance at low cost, Sun incorporated SSDs for caching data as it is written to or read from the appliances' disk arrays. This "hybrid storage pool" is a tiered system that uses both solid-state and disk-based capacity to balance cost and performance, according to Sun.
On the writing side, the SSDs replace NVRAM (non-volatile random access memory), which is slightly faster but significantly more expensive than SSDs. On the reading side, as data is pulled off disks for sending out and across the network, the SSDs complement DRAM (dynamic RAM), Lovell said.
Unlike either form of RAM, SSDs can be economically deployed at huge capacities. For example, on the writing side, the largest Sun Storage 7000 appliance can be equipped with 16 SSDs, each with 18GB of capacity, he said.
The speed and high capacity of the SSDs allow enterprises to use slower, less-expensive hard disks in the storage arrays themselves, Lovell said.
The low end of the 7000 line, the Sun Storage 7110 compact appliance, with 2T bytes of storage, is available now for $10,995 and up. The other two models will ship in about two weeks: The 7210 will have as much as 44T bytes of capacity and write-optimized SSDs, and the 7410 will have SSDs optimized for both reading and writing and will support as much as 576T bytes in a disk array.
The real value of storage products is now in the software that runs them, but Sun is trying to gain market share by using less-expensive open-source software, said Illuminata analyst John Webster.
"Sun wants to be disruptive here," Webster said.
There is some value in the platforms, Webster said. For the kinds of analytics that the FISHworks software delivers, IT managers normally would need to turn to separate system-management software for entire data centres, he said. That kind of detailed data is valuable as enterprises virtualise their resources with VMware, which doesn't provide those metrics itself, he said.
Some enterprises, especially those with large IT departments, are likely to accept the risk of working with relatively new technologies such as Sun's software and the SSDs in exchange for cost savings, Webster said.
"For sure, in 2009, IT budgets will absolutely be under pressure," Webster said.
Sun was moving in the right direction by at least offering appliances that work right out of the box, said analyst Andrew Reichman of Forrester Research. IT departments are conservative when it comes to storage and don't really want to tweak their storage software, he said.
The biggest weakness of the 7000 series appliances was that they couldn't be clustered, as some competing products could, he said. But another worrisome issue was Sun's scattershot approach to storage so far, with products from several acquisitions and partners, and now a homegrown, open-source lineup.
"It's just a bewildering portfolio of so many pieces (and) I just don't quite get how it all works together," Reichman said.