Sun’s N1: Still a Long Road Ahead

Sun Microsystems Monday expanded on its networking management software strategy, which it hopes will compete with similar products from IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

Dubbed N1 , Sun’s idea is to “cable once, provision forever,” meaning that system administrators can plug in servers, storage and other devices into a network and be able to configure, manage and them through a central area. The platform is being targeted to larger sectors like telecommunications, financial services, manufacturing and ultimately the government.

The N1 roadmap is a phased four-year rollout approach. Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun says N1-enabled products will start popping up in the first part of 2003 in both models-based software for data centers as well as included in Sun’s newest blade servers (such as its LX50) or a yet-to-be-named box that Sun hinted at back in November.

The Virtualization phase (2002-2003) is being envisioned as the introduction phase, where Sun says customers will begin transforming individual computers, network elements, and storage systems into an aggregated pool of resources. The system allocates, monitors, and meters the usage of these resources. Phase 2 covers Services Provisioning (2003-2004) allows administrators to specify the business service definition for a service, such as eBanking. In the final phase Policy-Automation (2004-2005) application service level objectives are automatically maintained by N1. For example, the eBanking service set-up in Phase 2 can be set to give priority access to “VIP” clients.

The claim is that a N1-based network has the capacity to subnet two systems including firewall with either Solaris or Linux in under 30-minutes including getting the images, downloading and set up. However, the rollout is a slow and tedious process that was first mentioned in 1998 and won’t fully be realized until late in 2005, according to Sun executives. Of the three phases of N1 – Virtualization, Provisioning and Automation – only Virtualization is close to being completed.

“We are a systems company, but we are changing the definition of the word ‘system’,” said Sun VP of N1 Products Steve MacKay. “We want to turn the boxes in to pools of resources. Customers are telling us that 75 percent of their IT budget is not buying equipment but making stuff work. N1 will have evolutionary impact in the data center, but we are building this on our evolutionary ones.”

Sun execs place their N1 platform in the same circles with HP’s Utility Data Center strategy and IBM’s new strategy of “Computing On Demand”.

“I’m not worried about leading people astray,” said Sun VP Operations Anil Gadre. “The others are responding in different ways. IBM, will want to ship me an army of bodies and they will do the work for you. The HP answer looks like a system management on steroids. If you look at what HP has done with UDC. They are high-end monolithic system deployments that require a forklift.”

Gadre says Sun’s focus is on blade servers with open management systems that does not require lots of staff to manage. In some models, Sun claims they can expand the average systems administrator’s responsibility from 15 to 20 servers to something in the hundreds without causing a brain aneurysm.

To give validity to its N1 platform, Sun is partnering with ISVs and network infrastructure providers such as Cisco Systems, as well as through alliances with system integrators such as Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, EDS and Deloitte Consulting. Oracle, BEA Systems, BMC Software, Computer Associates and i2 also support the N1 technology vision.

As far as the development of N1, Sun already has bits and pieces of its Virtualization program in operation starting with its Sun Cluster, StorEdge and Grid Engine software. It’s largest box, the Sun Fire 15K, has embedded visualization aspects.

However, the core pieces of N1’s strategy are realized not internally, but through Sun’s acquisitions of Terraspring and Pirus.

Both companies were apparently purchased because they could make the N1 strategy more than just vaporware. Fremont, Calif.-based Terraspring was brought on because it had a data center strategy that can configure heterogeneous infrastructure from pools of computing resources. It’s platform has been just updated to Version 3.0. Acton, Mass.-based Pirus, meantime, specializes in making a bridge between those nebulous computing resources and their storage counterparts.

“This is a multi-year journey,” said MacKay. “We’re an open systems company and we think it’s important to talk about these things in the open. Some companies we have approached are not ready for this (N1), some are already building their homegrown solution because they are anxious and they tell this they want to do this now.

MacKay said the initial rollout in 2003 will not require a painful upgrade, but Sun said subsequent installations such as instrumentation and APIs of the N1 software (especially on legacy equipment) would require some tweaking.

Case in point: Terraspring admits its earliest version of its platform did require system administrators to re-wire their attached boxes. The company said its current configuration does not need so much attention, especially with the power cables.