Sun Is Banking On Its Upgraded Storage Business

News Analysis: One of the main ways Sun will try to get out of the red is by focusing on storage. But can it win in such a competitive space?

If Sun Microsystems is going to pull itself out of a five-year financial nosedive, one of the three key areas in which it will need to perform well is data storage-a very competitive market for which the company is not well known.

Jonathan Schwartz, speaking in his first public financial briefing as CEO on May 31, specifically cited his company's open-source enterprise software franchise, the server hardware business, and data storage as the areas upon which Sun will build its business in the coming years.

With the worldwide data storage market expected by several analysts to reach nearly $65 billion by 2010, the Santa Clara, Calif., IT giant believes it can grab a good share of that income if it plays its assets correctly.

Sun has forged a beachhead into the space, led by its $4.1 billion acquisition of StorageTek (Storage Technology) in 2005.

At the time of the deal, Sun cited increasing federal and state compliance, archival and data management requirements for its customers-and potential customers-in deciding to add StorageTek's tape and backup products into its modular systems management approach.

With the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act ) and dozens of other laws and regulations coming into play in the United States in the last few years, the requirements for more-and more accurate-information for auditors is indeed mushrooming.

"We will be using a different approach to network storage, because our customers are demanding it," said James Whitemore, Sun vice president of marketing in network storage.

"With our new Thumper and Honeycomb infrastructures, we'll be able to leverage basically our entire portfolio to put together exactly what our customers require."

"Thumper," codename for an NAS product package that includes AMD-driven Galaxy servers and StorageTek backup, will be announced later in June, Whitemore said.

"Honeycomb," a product package which includes a new data-capture process, was announced earlier in May of 2006. StorageTek Titanium archive platforms are also part of the lineup.

Storage an intense focus

"Storage is an intense focus at Sun," Whitemore said. "This is a huge issue for our customers-the ability to store, secure and access all their data within an enterprise.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here for more details on Suns new storage strategy.

"With our entire product line, we can supply anything a business needs in the way of storage and data management. We will do it differently, and we will do it well."

Before the StorageTek acquisition, Sun had an inadequate number of enterprise storage products to complement its server business.

By now being able to bundle servers and storage as a complete package, much like IBM and Hewlett-Packard have done for years, Sun wants to differentiate itself from the established players when bidding for business against those companies.

Sun has been able to bring some big-time customers, such as Disney and several public broadcasting stations, into its customer base by selling them high-end products, including StorEdge arrays and its Content Infrastructure System.

Schwartz confirmed May 31 in a press conference that storage is one of Sun's top aims.

"Well be doubling down on areas like Solaris and StorageTek, where we have reason to believe that we can have inexpensive growth," Schwartz said. "The R&D's all done there, and the markets for those are ramping up."

What does Sun have to do to compete and win in a market with well-entrenched EMC, IBM, HP, NetApp and a flock of others?

"I think Sun has to clearly articulate its storage strategy going forward-what products will stay and what products will no longer be supported," said Dianne McAdam of The Clipper Group in Wellesley, Mass.

"They need to ensure customers that they will not be hurt by the layoffs and will continue to be supported in the field. StorageTek, in particular, was always very good at supporting their customers."

Is storage really a savior?

Could Sun possibly be banking too heavily on storage to help get it out of the red?

"Storage has not been the primary focus for Sun in the past-but let's face it-customers always need more storage to store data for longer and longer periods of time," McAdam said.

"It could help them get out of the red; [but I'm] not sure ... how heavily they were leaning on the storage side of the business to get them in the black."

Some analysts scratched their heads in 2005 about why Sun would acquire a fundamentally tape-based storage company when digital storage technologies were improving by leaps and bounds each year.

However, even though StorageTek had built its reputation on enterprise and midrange tape drive, tape library and virtual tape products, the Denver-based company had begun to shift its offerings toward a software- and services-based ILM (information lifecycle management) direction.

That is largely what sold Sun.

"In retrospect, StorageTek was a great acquisition for Sun," said Charles King of Pund-IT in Hayward, Calif.

"The company's business model isn't particularly exciting, but it reliably pumps out revenues/profits. StorageTek also has relationships with numerous enterprise customers who Sun would like to deal with.

"However, unless Sun can be seen as an IT innovator again, StorageTek's overall value is limited."

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Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...