Sun sharpens focus on one-stop storage

Sun Microsystems Inc. has attacked the storage market with a vengeance, as company officials talk up acquisitions, investments and new products. The vendor claimed its server and storage pairing gives customers one place to shop and "one throat to choke," positioning Sun well against storage king EMC Corp.

The company recently finalized its acquisition of Eagan, Minn.-based storage software maker LSC Inc., and on May 7, Sun launched a set of storage appliances - the StorEdge N8400 and N8600 network-attached storage (NAS) products - designed to give users storage space while requiring minimal configuration effort.

In addition, Sun CEO Scott McNealy said last week that the company would continue making storage acquisitions throughout this year.

Sun may talk a good game, but analysts said the vendor will need to live up to its words to gain market share in a lucrative space.

"Sun tells a good story, but it only holds up in some cases," said Roger Cox, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc.

The StorEdge products are only Sun's second and third NAS products, marking a slow move toward a high-growth market. Beyond its limited NAS line, Sun has also been losing share in the market for storage products linked to its Solaris operating system, falling behind EMC in a sector that it should own, said Cox.

"Sun only got about 32% of that market, when they should be getting 100%," he said.

While Sun acknowledged that it has moved late in parts of the storage market, many customers said they're impressed with the company's prices, which are generally lower than those of EMC for competing products, and with its arguably lower costs for managing those products.

"By getting on a single platform across the board with servers and storage, it meant a single engineer could support both sets of hardware," said Brad Whitley, a network engineer at Devon Energy Corp. in Oklahoma City. "With Sun storage, you are able to manage it with a common interface you are used to when managing their servers."

While Sun's all-in-one approach may give it an edge, analysts and customers said Hopkinton, Mass.-based EMC is also adding management features as it expands mainframe-style storage with networked technology.

"I think EMC recognizes the challenge of moving from selling iron to selling bits," said Frank Auer, vice president of operations at Galileo International Inc., a longtime EMC customer in Rosemont, Ill.

EMC's software functionality and scalability handily beat Sun's products, Auer said, leading him to conclude that EMC can deflect challenges.

Many analysts agreed, saying EMC will dominate storage for some time to come. The same analysts, however, also said that Sun has obviously sharpened its focus on storage and that the whole-system approach could pay off.

Vance writes for the IDG News Service in San Francisco.

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