Can Sun Bring Back Its Lustre Through Cloud Computing?

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2008-12-10

Can Sun Bring Back Its Lustre Through Cloud Computing?

SAN FRANCISCO-It doesn't have anything called the Sun Cloud Computing platform to demonstrate to potential enterprise clients, but Sun Microsystems appears confident going into 2009 that it can still serve as Cloud Central for companies that want to venture into the vast Internet skies on their own.

The company told journalists and analysts Dec. 9 here that its new cloud computing office is open for business and that, based on 26 years of network computing expertise, it can coordinate software, hardware and services from various sections of the company to put together enterprise cloud computing infrastructures.

Sun fully intends to carve out for itself a good portion of the $42 billion worldwide market for cloud computing construction that is projected for 2012. At the moment, IDC reports, the cloud computing infrastructure market is at $16 billion and rising, and the competition for those dollars is ratcheting up.

Cloud computing-otherwise known as utility/grid/on-demand computing-serves up processing power, data storage or applications from one data center location over a grid to thousands or millions of users on a subscription basis. This general kind of cloud-for example, services provided online by Amazon EC2 (Elastic Cloud Compute), Google Apps and known as a "public" cloud because any business or individual can subscribe.

Private cloud computing is a different take on the mainstream version, in that smaller cloudlike IT systems within a firewall offer similar services, but to a closed internal network. This private, generally more controllable network may include corporate or division offices, other companies that are also business partners, raw-material suppliers, resellers, production-chain entities and other organizations intimately connected with a corporate mother ship.

The services range from simple online document backup and file storage to heavy-duty, 24/7 social networking Web sites, corporate geo-positioning services, financial services transactions, and scientific and oil/gas exploration applications.

The key financial joy to this is that companies don't have to build their own capital-project data centers any longer. They can lease the computing power on a need-to-use basis, and pay on a subscription plan-daily, monthly or yearly.

A Generation of Network Computing Expertise

Sun has always been about "the network is the computer"-its very marketing mantra- so it has had the long-range vision for two and a half decades about the power of shared computing resources.

"We've already got a good presence here; you're going to see us be more visible [in this space] as we roll out new products early next year," Dave Douglas, Sun's senior vice president of cloud computing and the company's chief sustainability officer, told the group. "Our goal is to be able to play in all areas of these new systems."

Sun has always provided most of the hardware (Sun Fire blade servers, StorageTek storage arrays and even its own branded network switch), server and storage software (OpenSolaris, GlassFish Web server, MySQL database, Zettabyte File System, Lustre backup/recovery package and others), and networking software (Java) for general enterprise data center use. Sun's services group has been recast for cloud service duty.

Now, through Douglas' group, the company is identifying and supplying the necessary ingredients to build custom cloud structures.

Why Economic Slowdown May Actually Drive Sales

Douglas and Lew Tucker, Sun's vice president and CTO of cloud computing, both said they believe the slowdown in the overall economy is going to drive a lot of new interest in cloud computing this next year.

"This is particularly true in large enterprises [right now]," Douglas said. "Whereas in the past a more conservative company might have said, 'Well, let's let the cloud mature a few years,' now they are at least taking a serious look before they discount it because it sounds like it might save you money-which is what everybody is trying to do."

"We don't have any crystal balls ... but all we can tell you is that every one of our large enterprise customers is talking to us about where the cloud is going."

Many of Sun's customers are already well-versed in what the cloud offers, Tucker said, so they usually come into the conversation with specific questions.

"They're looking at Google, they're looking at Amazon and other large Internet companies and wondering, 'How the heck are they supporting that kind of infrastructure?'" Tucker said. "And the way they do it is that at times they have a cloud computing model that they're running inside. [These potential customers] are looking to change their IT, and cloud computing is facilitating these changes very quickly.

"They're looking at the economy and asking, 'How are we going to do more with less, or with the same setup they've got?'"

First Cloud Venture Wasnt a Big Hit

Ironically, Sun's first prime-time venture into the genre (Sun Grid, which opened to the public in February 2005) didn't take the sharp upward trajectory the company had hoped.

On Feb. 1, 2005, Sun announced that it was offering grid computing capacity to all takers-hosted in several global data centers-at a flat fee of $1 per CPU per hour and providing a gigabyte of storage capacity for $1 per month. There were a number of paying customers, but not enough to send the initiative on a skyrocket to popularity.

The company had plenty of practice, too. For about three years prior to that day, Sun had offered grid computing resources on an individually tailored pricing basis.

"The Sun Grid is still out there; we have a number of big customers who are avid users of it. It was an early attempt at the cloud space, and we kind of got some of the features right and some of them not quite right," Tucker told me.

"We're continuing to support users there, looking at how we provide that model with tweaks going forward," Tucker said. "We turned off taking new customers a couple of weeks ago; as part of redoing some data center stuff, it didn't make sense to take any new ones at the moment."

Sun doesn't plan on turning away any customers who knock on the door to talk about cloud computing, however. The company is clearly in need of a hit, since it's been slogging through most of the first decade of the century in the red.

Can cloud computing restore the Lustre to Sun? 2009 should provide a major part of that answer.

Rocket Fuel