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Sun's gwana-gwana mystery

Something to do with storage, reckons our Andrew

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At a European Editors' day a fortnight ago, Scott McNealy was asked why Sun wasn't the dominant storage vendor. "We had other stuff to do, we were busy," he replied. Sun knew exactly what it wanted to do, and indeed, its mission statement is one of very few in the industry that has remained unchanged.

By contrast, EMC began life twenty years ago with two middle aged sales executives with "no business plan". The pair eked out a living selling furniture (as this interview with the "Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States to Ireland," Dick Egan confirms) before cracking the memory market for Prime minicomputers. Still, EMC rules the roost in enterprise storage now, and it takes more than sheer fluke to remain at the top.

That Sun doesn't have a bigger slice of the pie - it's in fourth place behind IBM, Compaq and HP too - must be more than a little galling. With its stellar array of computing brains, and its multi-billion dollar research budget, it ought to know how to put a box of disks together. But it's vastly outgunned by two furniture salesmen. Oh, the ignominy...

We caught up with Jim Hebert, who now oversees Sun's storage in place of the divine Kathleen Holmgren (who we couldn't get close to yesterday for a clutch of admirers).

Gym lesson

Sun once again says it means business, having gone through a Kama Sutra of positions in the past, and after yesterday's launch the gymnastics continue.

Like HP, which previously licensed EMC kit before signing an OEM deal with HDS, Sun now resells the high-end Hitachi 9900 series. But it makes a virtue of rebadging the kit without modification.

Which is strange after McNealy's dismissal of Dell as a grocery store ("the only value you can add to a banana is a bruise", the best line in his current repertoire).

"What value does Sun add to a 9960?" None says Jim, and he says that's a good thing. Not so much as a bruise. Hebert says he rejected the option of adding to the machine's firmware, "because two separate code paths need to be certified". HP currently adds a million lines of microcode to its Hitachi kit, the SureStore 512XP, which raised the 256 limit up to 512. The 9960 now supports 512 too. But HP makes much of its software management.

According to Hebert, EMC's Symmetrix is nearing the end of its life, and can't match the data throughput of combined bus/switch architectures such as the HDS boxes.

We wondered if yesterday's modest upgrades were a sign that Sun was planning some revolutionary new systems somewhere down the track. With Infiniband and iSCSI on the horizon, isn't it time to rethink data storage?

"It's safe to say we're working on both of these," he said.

But things can begin to look very different when the pipe to the storage is as fast as the local bus, right?

"Potentially. What we're seeing a lot of is Infiniband all the way down to the server, then it runs into the PCI bus. So all the goodness dies at the box."

iSCSI, or SCSI over IP as he prefers to describe it, has potential interoperability problems: "We're still having plugfests with Fiber Channel, and we should have more: this doesn't just plug together like TCP/IP".

Tierful

He was equally opaque on how things should look in the future. We raised the prospect of middle tier boxes, like HP's SANLink, which is a $270,000 appliance that connects anything to almost anything else, virtualizes the LUNs, and was popular with Dell customers before HP acquired it last year.

"You have 50 VCs who say virtualization lives on an appliance attached to the network, others who say it lives in a big server, others who say it lives in the HBAs [host block adaptor]." And the answer? We'll have to wait for the next storage launch for Sun's answer to find out.

It's become a tradition at The Register to castigate Sun for not introducing bleeding edge innovation into storage. But we hear so much about Sun R&D, and its pathfinding role in the popularising UNIX™, the Internet and Flying Cars, that we fully intend to honor this curmudgeonly tradition.

The mystery deepens...
Until that day, Hebert will disparage technology-led approaches to selling storage:

"Every one of our competitors tries to sell technology to customers," he paused -

"... but not one of them gwana-gwana-gwana-gwana"

He didn't say that - that's just what it sounded like. In fact he said:

"... but not one them meets customers needs for an end-to-end solution."

The gwana-gwana was the result of my attention wandering for a moment. How long? I don't know. A few seconds, I guess.

I've heard this phrase countless times at press conferences in recent years. It never, ever makes it into print, even in the trade press.

Now, meeting your customers' needs is a laudible aim, roughly on a par with the goal of not crashing your car on the way to work in the morning. It's hardly necessary to say, and even less necessary to report.

One day my attention will return to the conversation, as the last "gwana" fades away, only to discover that just for fun, the executive has promised to "make our customers lives an unending misery!"

And I'll have missed it.®

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