Sun server/storage exec: Virtualization has customers confused

Sun hardware guru previews storage, server plans for 2008

Q&A with Sun's new head of storage and servers looks at Sun's attempt to reverse declining disk revenues, address energy efficiency and deliver storage and server advances.

Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz declared in October that he was "radically increasing Sun's focus on storage," (compare products) partly by combining the company's server and storage product teams into one group. Leading the effort is John Fowler, a 17-year veteran of Sun. Fowler previously was head of servers and now oversees both servers and storage in the combined group simply called "Systems," reporting directly to Schwartz. Network World reporter Jon Brodkin recently sat down with Fowler at Sun's offices in Burlington, Mass., to discuss Sun's attempt to reverse declining disk revenues, energy efficiency, and the future of storage and server technology.

What are your customers' biggest concerns?

Energy efficiency is absolutely number one. Every customer wants to talk to us about what can we do to get more performance per watt. They're either consolidating data centers or they're trying to build new services but they don't want to have a linear increase in power consumption with all the new services they add.

Everyone wants to talk about virtualization. You have to have some plan for virtualization even if you don’t know what it is.

They're very confused by virtualization. How do I do it, what does it do for me … what are the real values, how much cost does it add or subtract to my infrastructure? People are all over the place on that.

Do you think virtualization is being overhyped?

I don't think its being overhyped. It's a little surprising when you think about what's happening. Unix systems and mainframes have actually had virtualization for a long time. This isn't new to a big chunk of the market. All of us and people over at IBM are probably kind of puzzled too, because actually IBM invented virtualization in the mainframes in the '60s.

What's happened is it's come to the x86 market. That's why it's suddenly a part of the popular press because you never could virtualize Windows before. The second thing is the sudden emphasis on energy efficiency and people see it as a way to solve that problem as well.

How much of the efficiency problem can virtualization solve?

It's one piece of it. You can take things where you're just being wasteful and you can put them together and be less wasteful.

The other thing that's an interesting topic is 10 Gigabit Ethernet. People are starting to ask about how do I implement it, when is the cost going to come down, how will it change my data center? We're working very hard with virtualization technologies for 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

You attack the problem piecemeal. We have a good computing solution, and then we improve the networking solution and the storage solution, and with all three of those you can get to really high levels of energy efficiency.

Your disk storage revenue has gone down the past few years, right?

Absolutely.

Is the reorganization designed to address that cash problem?

It's going to help. First of all, disk revenue stabilized and went up a bit last quarter, which was the third quarter of the calendar year. We're actually back on an uptick. What we'’re working on is a whole set of new products related to disk that will be coming out over the next year.

Some of these products were already in flight … but putting the groups together meant we could go accelerate them.

Can you give us a preview of the products you'll release in the next year?

The hot part of the disk marketplace right now is midrange to down into the low end. It's the very high-end disk products that in general in the industry are not doing as well.

We have historically catered more toward the really large businesses, so we have a lot of rocket science. We've been spending more and more energy making sure we can appeal to more medium and small businesses.

How much are you doing with tape storage? Your focus on tape increased with the acquisition of StorageTek two years ago.

The primary part of StorageTek’s product line was tape. That was completely complementary to Sun. We didn't have any tape products.

[Today, Sun's] tape revenue and disk revenue are approximately comparable. We are a relatively small percentage of the disk marketplace and that's what we’re looking to grow. We're a relatively large percentage of the tape marketplace. The tape marketplace is smaller than the disk marketplace in terms of total dollars.

There's always debate about the respective benefits of tape and disk. What reasons do people use tape storage today?Sarbanes-Oxley or business process or scientific research. You might want to save it for 10, 50 years, we have people who want to save their data for hundreds of years and we help them figure out how.

If you ask for some data and it happens to be stored on tape, we go actually send a robot and get the tape cartridge. It might take 30 or 40 seconds to get the data. It's used much more for archive … where you have to save things a long time because of

The last thing you want to do is long-term archive on disk because you're burning power. It's also expensive. Tape can be a tenth to a hundredth as expensive per terabyte as disk. If you have an enormous amount of data and you want to save it a long time you go to tape. It's slower to access but very cheap and big and you can store it a long time.

What technology concerns caused Sun to combine the server and storage groups?

There's a lot of interesting convergence and crossover activities happening with protocols and how things are used on the network. People are working on making Fibre Channel work over Ethernet, Fibre Channel work over InfiniBand, a lot of people are doing iSCSI storage with Ethernet. It's all in one group so we can optimize those things in terms of physical products.

Storage and servers are becoming more intertwined. Can you elaborate on what’s happening?

People are putting storage into servers (compare products) and using parallel file systems and other technologies to access it. Storage itself is becoming more powerful and ending up with servers inside of it, so it can do more stuff.

We are now shipping storage systems that have really powerful computers inside them that let you run applications. Are they storage? Are they computers? We don't care. We're shipping servers that have lots and lots of storage inside them. Are they computers or are they computers integrated with storage? We don't care, they’re actually useful things. We call them storage servers.

Will the combination of storage and servers introduce any new challenges?

The concept of storage and storage servers is going to be a big challenge for companies in a number of ways. In most major organizations you often have a group who manages storage for the company. With things like storage servers you're going to see the possibility of departments and almost anybody having lots of storage.

It reminds me of the mainframe days. When you have the mainframe, mainframe guys control all the resources, right? Then PCs came along, and all the departments bought PCs and they were able to do their own applications and stuff. On one hand that was good and on the other hand it's chaos.

Over the next few years as it becomes relatively straightforward for individual departments to have huge amounts of storage, how do you make sure to maintain your information integrity, how do you do backups, how do you do all that, because it's going to happen. The central guys who run storage are basically going to lose power to all the people across the company who will be able to do storage on their own.

Six months ago, Sun announced its Constellation system, saying it would be one of the most powerful computing platforms in the world. What's going on with that?

Our Constellation system is the integration … of high-performance computing with high-performance networking, with high-performance storage, just sold as a complete package.

The biggest one we're installing right now is at Texas Advanced Computing Center at [the University of Texas] in Austin. That's 2.5 petabytes of storage, an enormous computing system plus InfiniBand switching for all the storage and compute, all as one integrated thing.

The Constellation system right now is aimed at people doing technical computing, but over time that concept will apply broadly to people doing enterprise as well. 

You've been at Sun since 1990. What's changed since then?

When I joined, Sun was fundamentally a workstation company. In fact, I joined the workstation group. Sun has evolved a lot since those days. Over the 17 years we went from being a company that didn't do storage at all. We were a workstation company, became a big server company, added storage both in terms of things we developed and also we acquired StorageTek. And now we're getting better and better at networking.

What major changes in server and storage technology do you predict for the next three to five years?I'm going to say some sort of obvious things. Virtualization won't be new. I would say you generally won't have any un-virtualized environments. People will use large-scale service providers for a lot more than they do today.Are you offering storage and servers as a service?network.com. It's used primarily by people doing applications development and universities. But on there you can get storage, applications services, you can build applications and run them as a service and not own your own computers. Network.com is small because at the end of the day were trying to enable many other people to do this, like Salesforce.com and others. We are selling people who want to be service providers the hardware, software and services to let them build their businesses.

We have a capability today called

What other major technology improvements do you expect?

The big driver for all this stuff is networking. It will all be 3G or WiMAX. That means we've got great bandwidth all the way down to end devices for any device we have [Fowler holds up a cell phone as he says this].

In three to five years thin clients will be everywhere. So is it your phone or is it your device, it doesn't really matter. The point is high-speed networking, both wireless (compare products) and wired, will enable completely different kinds of user experiences.

You also say open storage will take on a bigger role. What do you mean by open storage?

We've open sourced Solaris. We've included in Solaris the ability to do RAID-equivalent capability plus a lot of file system technologies. But it's more than that because SAS [Serial Attached SCSI] is much more truly an open standard than Fibre Channel. It's faster and it's a lower-cost connectivity point. The other part of open storage is until now you had to build custom chips in order to run storage systems fast enough to be interesting.

What's happening now is regular processor chips are getting fast enough to actually run all the storage protocols. It's possible to build a very capable storage subsystem using open technologies. That's going to cause economics to drop dramatically.

How is the server business going?

The server business has been a bright spot for Sun. We’ve had seven quarters in a row of growth. Earlier this decade we actually had some revenue declines in servers but that's not the case recently.

What helped you turn the tide?

Two product things. The first one was Solaris 10. We released a new operating system that has built-in virtualization.SPARC product line from top to bottom.

We also did refreshes of the entire server product line from top to bottom. We refreshed the entire

What do you have planned for servers in the next year?

We have a lot of R&D investments. We have a constant pipeline of server products. The big news in the first half of next year is we're introducing larger versions of the Niagara server. So we have a whole family of larger server products coming out based around Niagara, which is our own very efficient processor that integrates 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

We have major products coming out with Intel and AMD. Most of the product announcements are concentrated in the midrange of servers and down.

What are the biggest differences between your largest and smallest customers?

What's harder about larger customers is they always have a huge legacy. If you take a typical bank or telecommunications company they've been in biz for 50 years, 100 years.

They have applications and software that extend back. In fact, we joke that our bigger customers are museums for technology.

Smaller businesses don't have the same level of technical staff. Solving a weird performance problem or a really hard bug just isn't in their capability. You have to give it to them so they can use it easily or have a service plan that caters to that, whereas if you go into a large bank there are people in there who know our technology as well as we do.

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