Sun to enter content switch market

Sun Microsystems Inc. plans later this month to unveil its first ever content switch: a load-balancing and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) acceleration switch based on the Nauticus N2000 products that the Santa Clara, Calif., company acquired in January of this year.

Sun’s move into the networking business was sparked by its US$12 million purchase of content switch vendor Nauticus Networks Inc., based in Framingham, Mass. At the time of the Nauticus acquisition, it was widely assumed that Sun would be integrating the Nauticus technology into its server products, but the question of whether or not Sun would move forward with a switch product of its own remained unanswered.

Sun plans to ship its new switch by the end of the year, and will be delivering early versions of the product to select customers in time for a press and industry partner event, to be held in New York on Sept. 21, said John Fowler, the executive vice-president of Sun’s Network Systems Group.

Rather than simply shuttling network traffic from point to point, content switches are aware of the content of the network traffic they switch and are designed to perform certain network processing tasks — like server load balancing or SSL encryption — that would otherwise bog down servers on the network.

“The Nauticus switch allows us to have a classic load balancing switch with much higher performance and security than you would normally see in these products,” said Fowler.

The Sun-branded switch will be integrated with Sun’s N1 management software, “so it all works together as a seamless whole,” Fowler said.

“What we can do with this box is we run security so fast that you can always be secure,” said Fowler. “So you don’t have to worry about your banking site, for example, being spoofed because it’s always going to be secure.”

The switch also has a unique “virtualization” capability that allows customers to run a number of disparate networks on a single switch, Fowler said. “It has the ability to partition and have a whole bunch of different routing domains or policy domains. This is something that other switches can’t do.”

Until now, the only networking products that Sun has sold have been networking cards for its systems, a virtualization switch for the company’s StorEdge 6920 storage system, and network switching products that go into Sun’s blade servers, Fowler said.

Sun’s decision to move into the content switch market came as a surprise to some analysts, who say that the move runs the risk of antagonizing Cisco Systems Inc., a long-time Sun partner, which paid US$5.7 billion in stock four years ago to acquire content switch vendor ArrowPoint Communications Inc.

“Sun is not, as I understand their business, very much into the network switch business, and they have a lot of friends, partners, and allies that are in that networking business,” said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst with Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H. Eunice had been under the impression that Sun was not going to market its own switch, he said.

Others say Sun’s move should not come as a complete surprise.

“I’m sure there are some high-level discussions, with people asking, ‘Why is Sun competing with us in this market’, but this happens all the time,” said Joel Conover, principal analyst with Current Analysis Inc., in Sterling, Va.

The real trick for Sun will be to avoid confusion in its sales channel now that it is offering products that compete with its partners, Conover said.

Sun is still working out marketing details like pricing and a name for the switch, company officials said.

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