Sun outlines N1 initiative

Sun Microsystems says its new vision of the data centre spells an important change in the way companies view networked elements, although some industry observers wonder if enterprises are ready for this paradigm shift.

Sun on Thursday described its anticipated “N1” initiative – a set of tools, rules and applications designed to make the data centre less the collection of disks, servers and wires it appears to be today and more of a single computing entity.

“We see this as the context in which we will do things for the next five or 10 years,” said Paul Strong, Sun’s system architect, Solaris software, describing N1 during a technical breakout session at the company’s user conference, SunNetwork in San Francisco.

N1 presents a change in the way companies operate data centres, Sun’s representatives said. For instance, today when a firm wants to start up a new service – an online bookstore, for example – it must tackle the project from the ground up: define the service, find the requisite hardware in the data centre and try to match the infrastructure with requisite service levels.

“N1 turns that around,” said Steve MacKay, Sun’s vice-president, N1. He described how with this new data centre architecture, a company would start building the service from the top, rather than from the bottom: define the service, then set the service levels and let N1 automatically source the servers and disks to match the service’s requirements.

At its heart N1 is an example of “utility computing,” MacKay said. Various services will share the boxes and wires in the data centre. N1 will automatically balance the load to provide each service the storage space and computing power it needs.

Sun’s representatives said N1’s goal is to increase server utilization, which for most data centre operators is “just embarrassing,” said Jonathan Eunice, principal analyst and IT advisor with Illuminata Inc. Eunice, who attended the SunNetwork conference, said server utilization levels hover around five to 10 per cent and data centre owners are “very motivated” to improve efficiency. “I think it (N1) resonates with a lot of people.”

Mike Ellis, however, isn’t convinced that data centre owners are ready for Sun’s N1 vision. Ellis works for TeamQuest Corp., a performance management company in Clear Lake, Iowa. Although companies are considering novel manners of efficiency improvements, they aren’t prepared for the big change N1 presents, he said during an interview at the conference.

“They (data centre operators) have huge investments in what they have already, and they’re trying to manage it,” Ellis said, explaining that companies are still trying to wrap their heads around various system management schemes, let alone Sun’s disruptive vision of network computing. He added that N1 is “admirable” if perhaps too far ahead of the curve.

So what will it take for data centre operators to jump aboard the N1 bandwagon? “We just need steps to get there,” Ellis said.

Sun’s President and CEO Scott McNealy said the company would present N1 in stages, rather than as a package. MacKay said Sun already has many of the components it needs to make N1 a reality, including its enterprise Grid Engine software, which lets computers borrow unused CPU cycles from other nodes on a LAN.

MacKay said the first N1 product – a virtualization engine that makes quick work of resource sharing among network elements – would appear before the end of 2002.

He also said N1 should not be confused with system management programs from the likes of Computer Associates International Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. CA’s Unicenter and HP’s Utility Data Center (UDC) are fundamentally unlike Sun’s project.

“They’re really different things,” MacKay said, explaining that system management programs deal with box monitoring, whereas N1 is “a network system” designed to present simple infrastructure provisioning.

Still, Eunice from Illuminata said customers would be right to confuse N1 and UDC. From a distance Sun’s initiative and system management solutions seem awfully similar.

“There’s definitely an overlap,” he said, adding that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. “The vendors are uniformly lined up to solve a hard and crucial problem,” namely low server utilization rates in data centres.

He pointed out that Sun would do well to play nice with system management tools. “You have got to be inclusive” to win customer kudos, Eunice said.

MacKay said, “We’ll see a real synergy between the two,” describing the likely relationship between UDC-type programs and N1.

Strong from Sun said N1 represents well the company’s long-running mantra, suggesting the well-worn tagline will remain in use for the foreseeable future.

“We’ve been saying for 17 years that the network is the computer,” Strong said. With N1, “now the network really is the computer.”