Suns N1: Brilliant, Disruptive, Difficult

Sun officials are quick to point out the history of the company's disruptive technology.

Sun officials are quick to point out the history of the companys disruptive technology. It disrupted IBM, Digital and Hewlett-Packard in the 1980s, and it disrupted Microsoft with Java in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, the company itself got disrupted recently by the economic climate.

The company said its latest disruptive technology is based on the Linux desktop. Combining off-the-shelf software with cheap commodity hardware and applying good engineering and business practices will disrupt the market, according to Sun. Its a good thought.

Much of the attention focused on Sun lately, in fact, has been on its Linux desktop strategy. Certainly, its interesting when an engineering company that develops innovative things such as Java, SPARC and a trustworthy operating system says it can take on a manufacturing machine such as Dell and beat it on price.

Suns real innovation is with N1, a framework that promises lower IT administrative costs and a self-healing network—if thats possible. There are three phases to N1: virtualization, due by years end, which will create a logical map of system resources; provisioning, due in mid-2003, which will provide the ability to map pools of resources so that the N1 system can tune the network on a system-by-system level; and telemetry, due in 2004, which will provide acute system metering. Put them together, and youve got a self-healing system, along the likes of what IBM has been talking about with Eliza. (Go to for more on Eliza.) N1, however, bases its virtualization on profiles of systems using commonly used information (SNMP MIBs, for example). The virtualization engine, therefore, is a fairly easy concept to understand, and Sun should not have a problem making it work.

Its what comes after virtualization that makes things difficult. I see in the near future that N1 will live up to only a fragment of its potential, although it will still be highly useful and worth whatever cost there is. N1s full potential, however, will be realized only when its a technology thats actually embedded in every device. Its not clear right now when that will happen. Few networking and systems vendors know about it. For Sun to make it work, its going to have to sneak the technology in.

IT admins, would you like N1 even if it obviates your job (and maybe mine, too)? Write to me at