Sun gambles on open source for storage

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Sun Microsystems is showing signs of life in the storage arena, and plans to strengthen its efforts in March with the release of a new version of OpenSolaris, its open-source OS.

The so-called "Project Indiana" release of OpenSolaris will have a multithreaded implementation of the CIFS file-sharing protocol, allowing Windows users to store and retrieve files on an OpenSolaris system.

According to Bob Porras, VP of Solaris storage software, this release is significant because CIFS is one of the two file-sharing protocols that truly matter. The other, he says, is NFS, which Sun created back in the 1980s. CIFS is Microsoft's update of the Server Message Block protocol that IBM created for PC-DOS and Microsoft perfected for file serving on Windows.

But implementing CIFS on non-Windows systems has been a perpetual engineering hassle. According to Alan Wright, senior staff engineer on Sun's CIFS engineering team, Windows interoperability isn't just a case of implementing file transfer using CIFS. It also requires "that a server support various Windows services ... and it is very sensitive to the way that those services behave," says Wright. "Windows interoperability requires that a CIFS server convince a Windows client or server that it 'is Windows.' This is really only possible if the operating system supports those services at a fundamental level."

Sun's strategy of moving storage functionality into the operating system is what convinces Robin Harris, author of the StorageMojo blog, that Sun has a strong future in the storage business, despite its steadily falling attach rate. He thinks that with CIFS support embedded in its kernel, OpenSolaris will be the industry's first open-source software universal storage platform.

"Only a company with nothing to lose in the traditional big-iron storage business could be so bold," says Harris.

Another believer in Sun's storage resurrection is Dana Blankenhorn, co-author of ZDNet's Open Source blog. He thinks the ability to translate Windows and Linux files on the fly will make OpenSolaris the essential go-between storage platform. And that means Sun will "be a key supplier again," he says, for enterprises with mixed environments.

But there are still issues for Sun and Solaris. The goal of Project Indiana was to make OpenSolaris more accessible to IT managers who have become accustomed to Linux. So Sun is walking a tightrope: As it works to incorporate new Linux-like features, it risks alienating existing Solaris users who like the OS the way it is.

Furthermore, OpenSolaris still has a way to go as a storage platform because many of its new features are relatively untested. If the implementation of CIFS does make it into the commercial version of Solaris, it probably won't be for a year or so.

Blankenhorn also noted that Samba, the other option for implementing CIFS on non-Windows systems, just got a shot in the arm. In December, Microsoft, in accordance with the European Commission antitrust lawsuit, released the protocol documentation needed to make Windows workgroup server products interoperate with free software projects such as Samba.

--Peter Bochner

This was first published in February 2008

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