Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sun takes aim at Cisco, moves toward converged datacenter

Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz has a interesting series of blog posts outlining Sun's major strategic imperatives. In his latest post Schwartz announces (in a casual, offhand manner) that Sun plans to compete directly with Cisco by selling Solaris based routers and networking gear built on general purpose hardware:
"...general purpose microprocessors and operating systems are now fast enough to eliminate the need for special purpose devices. That means you can build a router out of a server - notice you cannot build a server out of a router, try as hard as you like...

...we now build our entire line of storage systems from general purpose server parts, including Solaris and ZFS, our open source file system ... We are planning a similar line of networking platforms, based around the silicon and software you can already find in our portfolio."
Cisco takes aim at Sun
That line about not being able to "build a server out of a router" is probably aimed at California, a highly anticipated project that will see Cisco enter the server market (kinda) by delivering a unified Blade Server/Networking/Virtualization/Storage product in concert with partners like VMWare. Project California is expected to launch on March 16.

It seems like both Cisco and Sun have their minds set on the same thing, owning the datacenter. Sun intends to disrupt the proprietary storage and networking markets using a converged, Solaris based systems approach.

Image courtesy of Sun

Solaris as a networking platform

The idea of running open source networking software on commodity hardware isn't exactly new. Vyatta, whose line of networking products are based on Linux, just released version 5 of their platform this week. However Sun has its own set of tools, and as usual, it thinks they are superior. Crossbow is one of the key underlying technologies that makes Solaris a networking platform. Sun hopes that Crossbow can do for networking what ZFS did for storage. Like ZFS, Crossbow has been under development at Sun for many years. It was deemed mature enough to be merged into OpenSolaris in December of last year.

It is important to note that Sun will not be delivering some loosely coupled set of hardware and open source tools for sysadmins to mix and match. Looking it their current "Open Storage" product line, it is clear that they plan to build tightly integrated purpose specific appliances.

Nevertheless, the underlying components will be commodity servers and open source tools. This means that a tech savvy start-up can take these tools and use them to build their own commercial solutions. This is good for Sun in two ways: (1) It drives their technology into the lower end of the market and creates a migration path to the high-end (2) Sun can focus on selling to its target market while entrepreneurs try out new ideas. If an idea looks promising, Sun can acquire the start-up. The acquisition process is made much smoother by the fact that the company is already using Sun technologies.

Using to eat their own dogfood

Even before the first customer signs up, we can expect Sun to use their own datacenters as the proving ground these technologies. I expect that the relaunched of, Sun's born-again cloud computing initiative, will be the first showcase we see. Interestingly enough it is also scheduled to launch on March 16...sorry, it is actually supposed to launch on March 18.

So who will win?

I think Sun's vision is correct, the datacenter is ripe for convergence and commoditization. I think Sun's potential is great, they have the hardware, the software and the engineers. I think the recession works in their favor, companies now have to seriously reevaluate costs and make sure they are getting value for money.

Unfortunately there are two major issues Sun has to get past. (1) Financially speaking, they are not in the best shape right now, and this strategy is more of a marathon than a sprint. Will investors be patient enough to see the finish line? (2) Sun has a history of having great vision, but failing to execute (*cough* original *cough*). Unfortunately for Sun, Cisco's balance sheet and their ability to execute are two of their greatest strengths.

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