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Why Sun Should Acquire a Solid State Disk Company

by Zsolt Kerekes editor - SPARC Product Directory - May 2004

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Why Sun Should Acquire an SSD Company

Why did I choose Sun as my example? And not IBM or HP?

Well they will all do the same in the end. Any computer manufacturer could pick up the ball and do many of the things I've mentioned in my article below. But there is a unique set of reasons why I think that Sun will be first.

The Need is Strong, the Upside Potential is Huge

Sun Microsystems' SPARC processors have been losing their performance advantages over Intel Architecture processors since 2001. Sun's recently lanched servers based on the new SPARC IV chips have left most analysts unimpressed.

Yes - it has two CPUs in each chip. So what?

Intel and AMD will be doing the same soon, and their clock rates are much higher. Sun's rapid operating system tweaks in Solaris mean that users can get a X2 speedup in many applications immediately, whereas rivals HP, Dell and IBM may have to wait another year for Microsoft to support similar features in upcoming Intel Architecture chips. So Sun has a short breathing space, in which it can live off stories of good TPC benchmarks. But the emperor has no clothes. Everyone knows Sun is not as good as designing fast chips which include tens of millions of transistors as Intel and AMD.

Sun doesn't have its own wafer fab, so it can't attract the best chip talent to integrate new ideas with manufacturable technology. The short term advantages of the "simple" RISC chips have long since been eroded as CPUs get fat with caches and multiprocessing support. But unlike Intel and AMD, who have to rely on 3rd parties to support new chips, Sun has a secret weapon, its Solaris OS. Computer architecture has moved on from the 1990s when buying the fastest clocked processor, and stuffing lots of them in a box guaranteed a faster server.

If Sun can deliver factory configured Solaris servers which include SPARC or Intel Architecture processors and run popular applications like Oracle 3 to 4 times faster than the biggest 4GHz servers from HP, then Sun's customers will take note. Such products could not only stem the flow of customers away from Sun to Linux, but actually reverse the tide. Sun's competitors will react, but their inability to tweak the OS as cleverly as Sun has always done with Solaris, means that Sun could get a 12 month window when its products are the sizzlers which everyone wants to own. Here's the trick. It doesn't need faster SPARC processors. Sun just needs to implement solid state disk support into Solaris, and ship boxes which include SSD as default options.

I believe that a $100 million strategic investment by Sun in SSD technology could return increased revenues of over $1 billion within the first year. Oh yes. And the new products will be more profitable too... Here are a few ideas to support this.
  • Solid state disks can speed up server performance by 2 to 4 times. There's plenty of evidence for this, see solid state disks case studies and articles for examples. But the SSD market is currently smaller than it should be because operating systems do not automatically recognise SSD devices and optimize them. Instead SSD vendors have been tweaking applications on a case by case, customer by customer basis. That's slow and too people intensive. It's like backing up your disk one file at a time from a keyboard without an automatic script.
  • Sun has a track record of buying storage companies to fix weaknesses in its own internally developed product families. Previous storage companies acquired by Sun include:- Cobalt Networks, HighGround Systems, LSC and Pirus Networks. While this is not in the same league as EMC, which has acquired 9 storage companies since Jan 2000, it shows a willingness to look outside for strategic solutions. A solid state disk company acquisition could cost a lot less money than most of Sun's earlier acquisitions. The upside potential is high. See also:- Acquired storage companies
  • Sun has a track record of advancing computer architecture. Computer architecture changed in 1992 when Multiprocessing moved out of the scientific supercomputer market and onto the desktop with Sun's SPARCstation 10. It was 5 years before the IA market caught up with that. Then Sun did the same trick again when it brought 64 bit processing to the masses in 1996. Today in 2004 faster clocked processors do not guarantee faster servers. The other parts of the computing network have not kept pace. SSDs are a 20 year old technology which have been used by the military to boost system performance. It's time for that technology to come in from the engineering lab and enter the mainstream.
Who will Sun acquire?

I don't have any inside knowledge of that. There are plenty of solid state disk manufacturers to choose from, and I know that a lot more are making their plans to enter this market. We'll just have to wait and see. The market will be big enough for all.

...2 Years Later:- - I was wrong about Sun being first to pick up the SSD torch.

In fact Microsoft became the first operating system vendor to incorporate SSD awareness in its Vista OS in 2006. However, Microsoft's implementation of flash SSD support was so bad - it nearly killed off the fledgling hybrid disk market.

...4 Years Later:- - in 2008 - Sun eventually entered the SSD market with uninspiring products. Sun's failure to become a leader in the storage market was one of the many reasons it later ceased to exist as a viable standalone company - and got acquired by Oracle (many other possible acquirers had kicked Sun's tires but walked away by that time).
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Operating System Support Can Work Wonders
Embedding native solid state disk support into Sun's Solaris servers would have far reaching effects:-
  • Sun's SPARC servers would reach a performance level which would take them 2 years ahead of the current SPARC CPU roadmap, and at much lower development cost.
  • Sun's AMD Solaris servers would run typically 2 to 3 times faster than competitors' Linux servers using the same CPUs.
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