Sun Microsystems' decision this week to end-of-life one of the few storage appliances built with its own technology is being viewed as a positive move by the vendor's channel partners.
However, those partners note that the move is only one of a number of on-going transitions as Sun looks for a solid direction for its storage business.
Sun has decided to end production of its Sun StorageTek 6920 midrange disk array with integrated storage virtualization capabilities to concentrate midrange storage sales on its Sun StorageTek 9985, which it has OEM'd from Hitachi Data Systems since mid-2005.
At the same time, HDS will take over engineering support for the 6920. To that end, an undisclosed number of Sun engineers related to the 6920 have been transferred to HDS, and HDS has licensed 6920 intellectual property from Sun. Both moves are aimed at allowing HDS to support Sun's 6920 customers, executives from both companies said.
HDS introduced the NSC55, its name for Sun's 9985, in July of 2005.
Both the 6920 and the NSC55/9985 virtualize storage capacity so that it can be carved and combined automatically as needed. The NSC55/9985 can virtualize up to 72 Tbytes of internal capacity and up to 32 petabytes of external multi-vendor storage capacity.
The move to quit offering the 6920 was part of a normal review of Sun's product portfolio, said Jason Schaffer, director of product management for Sun.
It came about because the 9985, which costs marginally more than the 6920, was squeezing sales of the 6920 from the high end, while the Sun StorageTek 6540 mixed Fibre Channel/SATA array was squeezing the 6920 from the lower end, Schaffer said.
"When we looked at the portfolio, we decided we should focus on our best-selling products, and so we are selling the 6540 for price performance and 9985 for virtualization," he said.
Contrary to some reports, Sun is not selling its 6920 intellectual property, and could use it in future products, Schaffer said.
And Sun is not abandoning its 6920 customers, he said. "It's the opposite," he said. "We will support them for five years. And if they want to buy controllers to expand their capacity or performance, they can do so."
The average 6920 and 9985 sales included 10 Tbytes to 15 Tbytes of capacity with a marginal difference in price, Schaffer said. However, the 9985 offers more data storage services, and connects to a wider range of high-end multi-vendor storage arrays, he said.
Karen Sigman, vice president of global channels for HDS, said her company will provide bug fix and other support for 6920 customers.
"It's a great example of us and Sun expanding our relationship," Sigman said. "The mantra from the beginning has been to support the 6920 customers, and give them a roadmap via the 9985 to the future."
The end of the 6920 also means Sun will not follow-up with an upgrade model. For Sun's 6920 customers, the next upgrade will be the 9985, Sigman said. "For customers migrating to the 9985, there will be a footprint change, a normal next-generation transition," she said. "It's pretty easy to migrate data nowadays."
Sun notified its channel partners of the change in status of the 6920 at a training session it is holding this week in San Francisco.
Janice Slayton, senior pre-sales engineer at Integrated Archive Systems, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based Sun solution provider who was reached at the training event, said that except for customers of the 6920, the end of that storage line is no big deal.
"The problem with the 6920 is, it was a midrange product, but by the time you add a lot of RAID controllers to get it to do what customers expected it to do, it got expensive," Slayton said.
Usually with a product as old as the 6920, a vendor provides a successor product, Slayton said. And while the migration from the 6920 to the 9985 will result in a new storage platform, the customer's investment in their 6920 is protected, as the 6920 can be connected behind the 9985, Slayton said.
Good riddance, said another solution provider, who preferred to remain anonymous.
The 6920 was a good product, but making changes to it was a painful process, the solution provider said. As a result, the one customer who purchased a 6920 early last year from that solution provider actually migrated to the 9985 six months later.
Rob Wolfe, president and CEO of AvcomEast, a Silver Spring, Md.-based solution provider and Sun partner, said that the 9985 is a better solution, and scales much better, than the 6920. "With the 6920 leaving Sun, we'll see Sun focus more on positioning of the 9985 in the midrange," Wolfe said. "It doesn't cost much more than the 6920."
Concerns about the 6920, and the move to push the 9985, represent the dynamics of Sun's relationship with the storage industry.
While solution providers are praising the Sun Fire X4500 combination 4-way server and storage array, also known as "Thumper," they also note that Sun has had to depend on HDS and other OEM suppliers for most of its storage as the company has seldom produced its own successful storage platform.
And while Sun acquired storage giant Storage Technology for $4.1 billion in 2005, solution providers said issues from that acquisition still remain.
Another Sun solution provider who preferred to remain anonymous said he sees a big schism between the legacy Sun and legacy StorageTek people caused in part because of how the acquisition is impacting the StorageTek sales.
"When StorageTek was on its own, it was allowed to exist in data centers because IBM and Hewlett-Packard didn't view it as a threat," the solution provider said. "It was left alone. Now it's a part of Sun, and HP and IBM have mandated to their customers they don't want to see StorageTek in those data centers."
The other problem, the solution provider said, is that Sun still does not know how to take advantage of its StorageTek relationships. "Where Sun could use the StorageTek presence in IBM and HP data centers to sell Sun servers, it's not happening," the solution provider said. "It's just poor execution."
Wolfe at Avcom agreed that Sun is not gaining the storage footprint it could do with StorageTek, even though his own company is enjoying a growing Sun storage business.
"I think Sun did too good a job with branding its storage with the Sun StorageTek name," Wolfe said. "They should have focused on the StorageTek brand. The other server guys would be less intimidated with 'StorageTek, a Sun company' than with 'Sun StorageTek.'"
Even so, Sun's storage still has great potential, Slayton said. The company is heavily invested in its Thumper product line, and is adding new vertical focuses to its Sun StorageTek 5800 application-aware archiving solution, also known as "Honeycomb."
"We had one customer call us about the Thumper we installed, and said they love it and would want to be a reference account for us," Slayton said. "We never even approached them about doing that."