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Sweet Caroline

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Here's Sun Microsystems. Ahead of the curve with utility computing? Check. Interested in gaining the business of today's internet companies? Big check. Full of server-side software skills? Check. Behind Amazon.com of all companies in actually putting these things together as a product or service companies can buy? Yep.

Sun's mysterious failure to address the potentially meaty market for renting a web infrastructure to fledgling businesses appears on course for a correction. The company plans to unveil a project code-named Caroline in the next couple of months, offering a "hosting platform for development and delivery of dynamically scalable Internet-based services".

The concept of utility computing has technically been around since the mainframe days. You fire up a large machine and then rent out time to different users.

The utility model, however, gave way to client-server computing during the major data center build out that has been underway for decades. Companies became accustomed to running their own infrastructures and largely relied on placing one or a limited number of applications on each physical server.

Thanks to massive increases in compute power, storage and bandwidth and more attention to virtualization software a revitalized form of utility computing is taking hold. Some companies like Salesforce.com rent out a specific software utility – customer relationship management software. Others like Amazon.com and more recently IBM – the time-sharing king – look to offer up their data centers for a wide variety of tasks, including storage and application hosting.

Sun has spent the last couple of years trying to get a variety of utility computing services going. But it has mostly focused on more familiar big business customers with processor and storage renting by the hour or gigabyte. Hey, Pixar, do you need to run some huge rendering job? Send the work over to our super-charged cluster instead of buying your own hardware. Valero, you've got some oil exploration data to crunch? Boy, do we have the hardware for you.

Unfortunately for Sun, regulatory concerns slowed the delivery of these services with the US wanting to make sure data remained secure and isolated for each customer and that overseas terrorists couldn't tap into a supercomputer for, say, weapons designs or the most efficient ways to spread a chemical weapon through a crowd.

As a result, Sun's utility business has looked pretty lackluster.

Meanwhile, Amazon has garnered tons of press for its EC2 grid-type utility for running software and S3 storage services. Amazon focused mostly on smaller companies operating on the web.

Now Sun wants to do something similar via Caroline.

The Register has uncovered a presentation from Sun distinguished engineer Bob Scheifler that details the new project. Apparently, Scheifler will unveil Caroline at the upcoming JavaOne conference in May (although, Sun may in fact provide the first peek at its annual Labs day in April).

Scheifler's presentation covers "a platform as a service, for your service, at your service," which is cute.

Caroline sounds very much like Amazon's EC2, although Sun seems to have some knobs that Amazon lacks.

At one level, Sun will provide access to a utility computing infrastructure, which will let customers expand their server, storage and networking needs at will. As you might expect, Sun will use both its Containers and xVM virtualization tools to chop up hardware and bandwidth. In addition, Sun will rely on things such as its impressive 128-bit ZFS file system to provide scale that Amazon likely cannot match today.

Developers can start tapping into this utility system by firing up a couple of virtual servers, which are connected to a MySQL or PostGreSQL database. Sun also plans to provide the usual Web 2.0 cruft such as wikis and blogs along with helpdesks. In addition, it plans to add some kind of Liberty site-wide identity management access.

A developer chum familiar with the Caroline presentation speculated that Sun's utility differs from Amazon's in that "the developer simply writes Java/Perl/PHP to a standard API, the API allocates resources in the 'cloud,' the system can be hosted at Sun or on your own grid and there's MySQL, PostgrSQL and JavaDB/Apache Derby support."

Frankly, we're not sure of all the ins and outs involved with EC2 so will leave this debate until we can get more information from Amazon and Sun. (Still, our thanks go out to one of our many blessed readers for pointing to Caroline and providing some perspective.)

It's encouraging to see Sun moving in this direction, although you have to wonder what's taken it so long. Sun spends a ton of time trying to woo start-ups and internet-savvy companies with its hardware and software. Given past utility efforts, you might have expected Sun to be the first company to offer these types of clients similar hardware and software as a service.

Instead, a company that sells books, toasters and diaphragms beat one of the world's main computing infrastructure vendors to it. Go figure.

There's more on Caroline here in PDF

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