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Sun adds virtual tape library to Thumper

Analysts say the combo of FalconStor's software, Solaris and Thumper is a good sign of integration from Sun after a disorganized year, but it's unclear if users will be convinced.

Sun Microsystems Inc. has announced availability of a new virtual tape library (VTL) product that combines FalconStor Software Inc.'s VTL software ported to its Solaris operating system with its SunFire X4500 server (aka Thumper).

The product, dubbed VTL Value, is the first pure storage product Sun has ported to the Thumper platform, which CEO Jonathan Schwartz said in Sun's earnings call last week will be the centerpiece of Sun's disk storage strategy going forward.

VTL Value joins the existing VTL Plus, another OEM of FalconStor aimed at midsized customers in Sun's product line. VTL Value comes with 24 terabytes (TB) of 500 GB SATA drives, and Sun said support for 250 GB and 750 GB drives is coming sometime next quarter. It also includes the Sun ZFS 128-bit file system and software-based RAID 5 write checksums, which the company claims can offer dual parity data protection similar to RAID 6 without the performance penalty. It connects to hosts via Fibre Channel and also has 4 Gigabit Ethernet (GigE) ports for replication and management. List price is $84, 995.

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" 'Bargain,' might be a strong word for $85,000," said Stephanie Balaouras, senior analyst with the Forrester Research Group, saying that Sun's positioning of the product as a low-cost system for small and midsized businesses (SMB) might be a tough sell. However, "I do believe they have a compelling argument for large enterprises that need to protect distributed sites, and reliability and performance are still important."

Despite the fact that VTL is largely last year's news, especially as backup applications grow more aware of disk, Balaouras said larger enterprises would probably stick with VTL for longer than their small and midsized counterparts. "[At] global enterprises and very large enterprises, tape is still hugely important. They have significant investment in tape and given all the emphasis on power and cooling requirements, tape will be around for a long time in these customer segments."

But there are some caveats with the tape integration in this product, chief among them that it won't be available for another 30 days. Nor will remote replication, another feature key to managing storage at remote offices. These features are still being tested with the the FalconStor software on Thumper, according to Dan Albright, group manager for the VTL Value product line at Sun. A license key will open the features to users once they are certified. "We're wrapping up the final stages of testing with these features right now. We've just given ourselves 30 days on those features to get them rolled out after that," according to Albright.

Users will have an even longer wait for data deduplication, despite the fact that FalconStor offers it with a feature called Single Instance Repository (SIR). (Other FalconStor OEMs, including EMC Corp. and IBM, have also not yet offered data deduplication in their VTLs.) Sun said the feature will be available in the first calendar quarter of 2008. "Dedupe is almost like a totally different product," Albright said. He also echoed IBM officials in citing data integrity concerns as the reason for delays in adding dedupe.

When and if the full set of features becomes available, backup applications will only be able to see physical copies of tape written through the VTL if they are integrated with StorageTek's ACSLS tape management software. Some users have identified this as a drawback of VTLs that integrate with tape, though Sun and FalconStor argue that the value of virtual tape is its ability to abstract management of physical tape from the user, and that giving backup applications control of the process defeats the purpose of virtualization.

The beginnings of a turnaround, or more of the same?

Another potential issue is what this product is not -- the long-promised VTL Enterprise, which was preannounced last year at Sun Forum by Dr. David Yen, at the time the head of the storage group. VTL Enterprise itself was the latest incarnation of a high-end open systems VTL that has been in the works in one form or another since before Sun acquired StorageTek. This year, Dr. Yen has moved to the microelectronics group within Sun as part of the repeated upheavals that the company has gone through in recent months, and VTL Enterprise is still nowhere to be seen.

"We are not prepared to comment on VTL Enterprise at this time," Albright said, though he said the company still plans to deliver a high-end "flagship-type product." He added that the strategy for VTL within the company has shifted to injecting as much Sun IP as possible into products, as has been done in this release. This new strategy follows on the reorganization of disk storage groups at the company under the server and software groups.

Meanwhile, some users are skeptical in response to this latest news. "You can get a Thumper for $40,000," said one storage administrator for a large national telecom who asked not to be named. The user said he is currently evaluating using Thumper's cheap, dense disk unit as a repository for disk-based backup through Symantec Corp.'s NetBackup version 6.5, and said he also has FalconStor VTLs in-house branded by a couple of different OEMs. "I don't see how FalconStor's software adds $35,000 of value to [the product], and on top of that, you have to pay for your backup software to write to it anyway."

He added, "We're moving away from VTL now that the backup software is getting good at writing to disk. I really don't see where VTL fits in anymore."

However, analysts are cautiously optimistic that this announcement could mark the start of better days for Sun, pointing to the integration of Sun's operating system, file system, and DAS box, as well as the more cohesive storage strategy around Thumper, as signs of progress.

"Thumper can seep out into lots of places [within Sun's product lines]," said Arun Taneja, founder and analyst with the Taneja Group, identifying the red-hot archiving market as another place the product could find a home. "They've also simplified what had been a potpourri of haphazard product offerings, and the VTL is looking like a more consistent product line.

"It's far too soon to declare any success, but I'm seeing some signs of energy from Sun I haven't seen in a while," he added. "The next six months will tell, but it seems like somebody is thinking over there."

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