Sun props up storage line in quarterly update

Among the highlights: updates to its mainframe VTL, a new NAS gateway and a change in the story about the long-delayed Honeycomb CAS system.

As is its habit, Sun Microsystems Inc. came out with a boatload of product announcements all at once at its Sun Network Computing event in Washington D.C., today. Among the storage updates were two new versions of its mainframe Virtual Tape Library (VTL) and the addition of Galaxy 64-bit Opteron processors, iSCSI support and Symantec antivirus software to its 5320 NAS head.

The conference in Washington will also include a preview of the Honeycomb "project," originally slated to be a content-addressed storage (CAS) system and scheduled to ship in the third quarter of 2005, which Sun officials now say is a "CAS and programmable storage system" that will ship in the third quarter of this year instead.

Mainframe VTL improvements

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Sun introduced two additions to the Sun StorageTek Virtual Storage Manager (VSM) system, the VSM system 4e and VSM system 5. VSM system 5 will now include up to 30 terabytes (TB), twice that of the previous version. Software updates also mean that users can now run up to 256 VSM systems controlled at a single point. VSM system 4e is a scaled-down, lower cost version of the VSM, offering from 800 GB to 1.25 TB of capacity.

Ultimately, the mere fact that Sun has updated a mainframe product may be more important to its storage users than how its added to it -- last fall users at StorageTek Forum, also in Washington D.C., expressed apprehension about whether or not Sun would continue to develop mainframe products (see sidebar). VSM is a natural choice for Sun to update first; an estimated 69% of mainframe tape customers are using it, including seven of every 10 IBM mainframe users.

"The VSM product announcement is critical to showing our customers that we are committed to mainframe products," said Sun Data Management Group vice president James Whitemore.

Analyst Arun Taneja, founder of the Taneja Group, however, remained skeptical. "Sun has passionately hated mainframes for 20 years," he said. "It's not to say that they can't have a change of heart -- and there's a genuine cash cow business StorageTek has had with the mainframe. But as to how much of an emphasis they'll really put on it, my jury's out."

Sun's new NAS appliance

The 5320 NAS appliance will be Sun's first NAS product based on the 2.6 GHz AMD Opteron processor "Galaxy," which will improve performance and allow compatibility with the new Sun Fire x64 server platform, which is also based on Galaxy. The 5320 is essentially the 5310 NAS appliance (itself originally a Procom Technology product) with the Galaxy and a few other features added in, including support for block-level iSCSI access.

The 5310 is also Microsoft Windows Hardware certified for Windows and Exchange environments and will now add gateway support for the midrange Sun StorEdge 6130 and 6920 systems, and Sun's entire high-end disk portfolio, including the Sun StorEdge 9970, 9980, 9985 and 9990 and FlexLine systems. Symantec Corp.'s AntiVirus Scan Engine will be embedded in the 5320 NAS head.

Sun is also expanding its "Try and Buy" program to include its storage products. The program allows customers and resellers to evaluate and test a Sun StorageTek 5320 NAS appliance at no charge for 60 days, with the option to purchase the system at the end.

The Sun StorageTek 5320 NAS appliance is available now starting at $49,990 for a 2.4 TB system.

The changing story around Honeycomb

As part of today's product announcement, Sun is pushing the use of its Compliance Archiving software (essentially, write once, read many for a file system), released last April with the 5310 and 5320 NAS heads for customers looking for compliance and fixed-content features in Sun systems.

Meanwhile, its Honeycomb CAS product, meant to compete with EMC Corp.'s Centera system when first announced last January, never materialized on its original ship date in the third quarter of 2005 and had yet to surface until the announcement that today's Washington show will include a "preview" of Honeycomb.

So what's in this preview? And why had it taken so long?

"Essentially, during development we realized we had something with far greater potential than CAS," said Tom Martin, director of marketing for NAS and compliance products with Sun. "Honeycomb has gone from a CAS system to a whole new category of storage."

What Honeycomb will now be, according to Sun, is programmable storage, in which applications and storage services that have traditionally run on servers could run in the storage arrays themselves.

What about customers who may have been waiting for a year for Sun's CAS system? "We didn't just want to release a me-too product," Martin said. He said that while it doesn't use a hashing algorithm similar to Centera, the compliance archiving version of the 5000 series NAS heads could work just as well. Martin also cited the fact that EMC had put a NAS head in front of the Centera system as an example of how NAS and CAS go together.

"I don't think customers are necessarily just buying Centera for CAS," Martin said. "They have also been buying it because it's less expensive than a lot of EMC's other storage. Our NAS heads fit that price point as well."

Analyst Steve Duplessie, founder of the Enterprise Strategy Group, said the new concept of Honeycomb is a good idea -- in theory. "In order to do something like this, you have to own not only the storage but the OS, processors and network," he said. "Sun is in a very small class of companies that can marry those technologies.

"But," he said, "it remains to be seen if they can execute."

Taneja dismissed the Honeycomb preview as "vaporware," saying, "These announcements in general leave me wanting to see some more substance from Sun in general. I'm still undecided on Sun in general -- and I'm not really going to believe anything substantial from them for at least another 12 months."

ESM supports Java

Sun also announced that it will be building its Java Access manager into its Enterprise Storage Management (ESM) software. Sun's goal with the ESM, like many storage companies, is to condense storage management into one portal.

Easier said than done, Taneja said, but the idea behind including identity management across different systems is a good one.

"It's not a brute force, single security appliance approach like Decru, for example," he said. "It's a smarter security strategy than just blind encryption."

Sun has also announced that it will be offering a workshop, called Information Management Maturity Model, or IM3, a half-day session aimed at showing users where their organization falls within Sun's best practices, and compare that ranking to industry benchmarks and the competition.

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