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Third time a charm?

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It's back. The grid/utility/cloud computing and storage idea is apparently being revamped by Sun Microsystems only a few short months after the company shut down its Network.com utility, originally known as the Sun Grid.

The details are unknown, but reports coming out of the AFCOM Data Center World conference (here and here) indicate that this time around, Sun is going to use a third party hosting company to host its cloud computing offering instead of hosting it in its own high-tech (and much bragged about) data centers.

Greg Papadopoulos, Sun's chief technology officer, said in a keynote speech at the AFCOM event that the company had "thousands of cores" and "petabytes of storage" installed at the SuperNAP data center run by Switch Communications, which is located in Las Vegas and which has, according to legend, rose from the ashes of the broadband trading operations of none other than Enron.

The SuperNAP data center is a behemoth, weighing in at 407,000 square feet and costing $350m to build. Papadopoulos did not spill the beans on exactly what Sun's third try at utility computing might look like, but he did joke that the company might have to change its motto to "the network is your computer."

Well, actually, it would seem like the network is SuperNAP's. Perhaps the computer will be Sun's.

Sun launched the Sun Grid to much fanfare in February 2005. Then it changed the name to Network.com. Then, after fits and starts, it mothballed the Network.com utility in December 2008, only two weeks after announcing 5,000 to 6,000 layoffs and a restructuring of the company that saw the creation of the Cloud Computing and Developer Platforms group, under former energy czar Dave Douglas.

This new group had control of the Network.com utility, the NetBeans developer tools, and the StarOffice office automation suite and its related OpenOffice project. In early January of this year, Sun acquired Q-Layer, a Belgian software company that has created a set of abstraction software to create what amounts to a virtual private data center that is in turn reliant on underlying virtualization software for servers and storage. Q-Layer could end up being to clouds what GridEngine was to grids: good stuff that is nonetheless hard to productize and actually make money from.

Back in 2005, Sun had one aspiration: to be the supplier of computing power systems, much as General Electric, Westinghouse, and Hitachi were for electricity generation more than a century ago. It is not clear what Sun is up to this time around, but it did say back in December that it would launch some sort of cloud computing effort. So the admission by Papadopoulos that some cloudy thing is running in the SuperNAP (where Sun has been putting gear since last year) comes as no surprise. Moreover, a few thousand cores and a few petaflops of storage is something like five or six racks of gear. That's not a cloud. That's fog on the windshield.

Four years ago, Sun had servers and storage, a well-regarded Unix operating system, an acquired Grid Engine grid computing program and high hopes to make press and make some money. Sun made a lot of noise, but eventually downshifted the grid to Network.com, which it then aimed at developers, hoping to become the platform on which software developers created grid-enabled applications that they would then deploy on their own utilities when they went into production.

Sun also provided compute and storage resources for academics, but as Amazon's EC2 service has shown, Sun's $1 per CPU per hour price was so early 1990s. You can pick up a small virtual core on EC2 for 10 cents per hour, and if you reserve your slices for a one year term, you can drop that price down to 3 cents.

This time around, Sun has better and cheaper servers and has learned some lessons thanks to its Sun Grid and Network.com experiences. But it is hard to imagine Sun getting out in front of Amazon, Google, and maybe even AT&T with its Synaptic Hosting cloud. Sun was ahead of these and other companies once, when we were talking about utility computing and then grid computing, but Amazon is the one that has the mindshare and market share for clouds right now.

That said, competition is good and the cloud computing market - if it does indeed become something that makes money instead of noise - is still quite young. ®

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