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Sun steps up to the SAN trough

But it's just too tasty to overturn

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One of the most interesting tidbits we heard yesterday was that Sun is making more money from its storage business than it is from servers.

Officially, Sun won't say one way or the other, but if that's really the case, then it's not alone. There are plenty of snouts in this trough - a business which, as we've pointed out before - has been denying the laws of gravity for far too long.

So Sun has duly revamped its storage line-up, but it leaves its fellow feeders pretty much as they were before:

EMC still quotes astronomical list prices for closed boxes which can only be opened by EMC-certified staff, and still makes a poorly documented and only partial API available to hand-picked ISVs for a tidy $35,000 a time.

Veritas can still charge premium pricing for its volume manager, and the switch vendors can continue to demand - and get - exclusive deals from their customers as no two switches can be guaranteed to work together. And lest we forget, this also creates a nice lucrative sideline in 'Switching Interoperability Labs' - just so the storage is supposed to work as it should. Yup, that's the cost of parking in this town.

But Sun does seem to appreciate that hooking up a few pesky disks is going to become a service business, sooner or later, with the technology completely commoditised. But for now it suits everyone that it isn't.

On Wednesday, Sun could claim that its new kit was cutting around 79 per cent off EMC's prices for equivalent storage, based on a list vs list comparison. For example, 10Tb of EMC costs a cool $4.6m, and with Sun T3s, that now comes in at $1.7m.

However, EMC's list prices bear as much resemblance to reality as IBM's list prices - it's got more fat to burn off before it feels the pinch.

In a nutshell, Sun has taken certain bits of disk management software from its proprietary rebadged boxes and put it in Solaris. The goal is to manage anything from the OS, naturally. Ancor is the favoured switch vendor, and Veritas the favoured management software (Sun already sells a rebadged Veritas lvm) so it has something to sell right away.

The management stuff is pretty neat - instant database snapshots are available right out of the box, which isn't new for the industry, but is new for Sun. Sun has signed up fifty partners for Jiro, the policy management layer, and that's supported by the biggies.

The rest will trail along soon: support for storage on NT 4.0, HP-UX and AIX is due by the autumn, and for Linux and Windows 2000 by the end of the year. The remaining big switch vendors - including Brocade - should be compliant by then too.

So what's the problem? Well, we can't help thinking that the buccaneering Sun of old would have used the occasion to really set the cat amongst the pigeons. For example, by announcing that it was hacking away at EMC's APIs, or cooking up a cluster file system that wrapped around DiskZilla's horribly big boxes. There are plenty of bright folk at Sun who'd be willing to have crack at this - we know this because we know them and they tell us as much.

But this loss of nerve isn't all Sun's fault. The commodity bits aren't quite there yet, or at least not where for a Dell could step in. For example, Infiniband is too young to feature in Sun's next generation Serengheti servers, and as Sun's storage VP Ron Lloyd told us, we're therefore stuck with Fibre Channel interconnects, a spec that's been loose enough to allow the switch vendors to write it all their own way.

On the other hand, we still don't think - and flame us now, guys - that Sun really gets clusters or cluster file systems. So although Ed Zanders is right in picking out Compaq as a rival that's really got the hang of distributed storage, it's not as distributed as it could be.

To any sane buyer, the cost of parking your data somewhere - and that's a right, not a luxury - remains absurdly high. But the short-term gain looks too great for Sun to resist. ®

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