Feature

Sun looks to boring future in software, servers and storage

Real technology is about boring stuff. Real corporate IT is not about media-friendly dotcoms with celebrity front-people and scowling black polo-necked founders.

"It's not about glamour, or Boo.com, or selling pet food on the internet - it's about the boring stuff like business process re-engineering, supply chain management, manufacturing resource planning systems - this is what the corporations are really doing with IT," said Ed Zander, president and chief operating officer of Sun Microsystems, manufacturer of boring servers and - yawn - software tools.

And, he added, what companies are doing with technology is changing the way they do business, enabling faster product cycles, quicker time to market and more efficient processes.

The distractions of the dotcom era over, IT suppliers can concentrate on the boring stuff again, such as storage. Sun has pinpointed this particular area as one of the potential "disruptive technologies" of the coming years.

Disruptive technologies throw companies off course - just as the PC did in the 1980s when companies grappled with a nightmare of incompatible file formats, drivers and hardware. It is what Zander likes to call "the whack factor" - things whack you in the face before you have had a chance to see them coming.

Expect to see new announcements from Sun in this space. "The storage market is the next battleground," said Zander. "We need to do a better job of [network] attached storage and storage area network-based products."

Storage management software, in particular, will assume far greater importance as the amount of information to be managed grows exponentially.

New server products will come later this summer. Zander admits that Sun timed the release of its latest servers rather unfortunately, as US companies in particular have frozen their IT spending in recent months and had little enthusiasm for new products.

Sun introduced four new Fire servers, using the Ultrasparc III chip, in March. The recent Cobalt server announcement also fell flatter than the company would have hoped.

Other projects soon to bear fruit at Sun are Sun One, which Zander promises will see a new middleware infrastructure brought to market, combining Solaris with software from iPlanet (formerly Netscape) to create a messaging and directory portal, with a built-in application server. The Forte range of Java tools and connectors will also feed into this effort.

Future versions of Solaris will come with a directory and an application server as standard, he said.

This is the Internet services software that most believe will see Sun do battle with Microsoft's .net and Oracle's Dynamic Services Infrastructure.

Sun is also looking closely at peer-to-peer technology, which Zander suggests could be "the next generation of client server". The company needs to keep on top of this development because of the "whack factor" - peer-to-peer networks, with their non-hierarchical structure and efficient use of unused processing power on desktop machines could eventually threaten Sun's main business of selling big centralised servers.

It is not obvious, however, how Sun could assist with the development of peer-to-peer networks, and Zander provides no clues.

At the other end of the scale, Zander added, Jini is still "kicking around", and there are some plans for its commercialisation. Sun, he said, "tends to try to dabble in lots of things, things you don't see, and they don't work out sometimes".

Many of these dabblings will be in software, as over the next few years, Zander said, "Sun will become even more known as a software company."

Fiona Harvey

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This was first published in May 2001

 

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