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SSDs and Sun-Oracle... past failures / future challenges

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor - SPARC Product Directory - February 3, 2010
Like Gaul in Asterix - the history of Sun Microsystems' SPARC/Solaris business can be divided into 3 parts.

1 - the Growth Years - 1987 to 2000, and

2 - the Decline and Lonely Wilderness Years - 2001 to 2009, and then

3 - the Oracle - Roadmap to EOL Years - 2010 to 2017 (this note added later)

Sun's biggest strategic success in the Growth Years - was that the company designed a processor family (SPARC) - which at one stage (in the mid 1990s) attracted more than 6 competing, compatible chipmakers who supplied SPARC CPUs for use in workstations and servers that competed with Sun itself. Just in case you thought this kind of thing only happened in the Intel x86 world (Intel, Cyrix, AMD etc).

Apart from Intel Architecture - SPARC is the only processor chip family which has achieved this level of support within the mainstream commercial computer market. Sun, which was a small company when it started, used clever partner marketing programs to create the illusion that it was building an open systems server market. More than 50 computer makers and hundreds of bus compatible card makers helped Sun sustain this dream of creating an open server architecture - which would be faster and more reliable than Wintel, while being cheaper and safer to buy than "proprietary" products from IBM, DEC and HP.

2001 - Sun loses more than revenue!

2001 marked the turning point in the 2 phases of Sun's history.

In 2001 - all server companies were suffering from the dotcom recession - which was extended by the events of 9/11. But in this year Sun lost more than a share of diminished user IT budgets (which would increase later for its main rivals.)

Sun lost its reputation for reliability. For more about this see the article - Unsafe At Any Speed? - a contemporary exposé of an easily avoidable design mistake which affected tens of thousands of high end SPARC servers . That was a pivotal point for most Sun customers. If they couldn't trust Sun, and Sun's SPARC servers were slower and more expensive than alternatives - then why were users risking their own operations by relying on this flaky outfit? That's when many die-hard SPARC user sites decided that the bitter taste of migration planning was better than the risk of being poisoned.

Sun's biggest strategic failure in the Decline and Lonely Wilderness Years lay in its many failed attempts to achieve technology leadership and relevance in the storage market - and most importantly its failure to recognize the threats and opportunities for all server makers (not just Sun) posed by SSDs.

Once upon a time - in the early years of the new millennium - as Sun started to lose its earlier performance advantages (because Microsoft was supporting Intel's server chips much sooner - instead of ignoring new features for years like they had done before) and as all server CPU designers were looking ahead at slower improvements in clock speeds - Sun had unique reasons and opportunities for exploiting SSD accelerated architectures. I wrote an exasperated wake-up call to Sun in my (2004) article Why Sun Should Acquire an SSD Company. They controlled the OS, they controlled the CPU design and they sold servers. What a fantastic starting point for the next phase in computer architecture!

Instead Sun did virtually nothing to redress the problems caused by lagging CPU clock rates - and mindlessly pursued the easier option of fatter - rather than faster - processors.

This was a market strategy which solved some problems in some markets for a short time - but could not be sustained as the core SPARC base was declining - because other chips were much faster. Smaller revenues from SPARC servers - meant smaller investments and slower design improvements in SPARC chips. Sun's real strength had always been integrating and supporting new chips and interfaces with its OS. It wasn't the best at designing chips.

Will Oracle do any better?

Oracle has bought a server company at a time where the server is becoming almost irrelevant.

If you look at a datacenter in 2015 and look at where the money will be spent - the proportion spent on servers will be less - and the proportion spent on solid state storage will be much more than that spent on the processors, motherboards and RAM.

The key value for Oracle in Sun is its OS.

If Oracle can tweak Solaris so that it can automatically tune the best performance out of the attached SSDs - it would have a great product to pitch.

But the autotuning SSD acceleration market has already started. The race for the SSD ASAPs market is application agnostic. The computer market is rushing ahead to a new enterprise SSD bubble - and it will take another 5 to 10 years before the winners are announced. Want to know what's going to happen? Retune to - which since 1998 - has been "leading the way to the new enterprise storage frontier."

Oracle - Sun SPARC Solaris Roadmap to EOL

Later:- September 6, 2017 - the Sun / SPARC story didn't have a positive story line after the acquisition by Oracle. For a summary of the bump to EOL see the article - Oracle Finally Killed Sun - which says among other things... "The news from the ex-Sun community jungle drums is that the January 2017 rumours were true and Oracle laid off the core talent of the Solaris and SPARC teams on Friday, September 1, 2017 (perhaps hoping to get the news lost in the Labor Day weekend)."

Impartial observers would say that by this time Sun had long become irrelevant in the storage and big memory systems markets. Everything in those markets was about to change again anyway.

For the my predicted direction of enterprise travel and new assumptions about storage and memory see after AFAs - what's next?
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When storage was slower and memories were smaller and the software assumptions were much older and processors were more deferentially looked up to - all the controller designs in the data food chain looked good in comparison to the other devices surrounding them. But now a factor which I call "controllernomics" is the most important science which sets the limits to the quality of datasystems latency seen at the server motherboard level no matter how good the raw memory cell R/W times.

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