IBM/Sun: It’s All About The Storage?

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Enterprise storage has to change, as customers finally get free of proprietary systems. Buying Sun gives IBM a chance to moves its customers on without losing them to the competition

You can say want you like about why IBM may be buying Sun Microsystems, but I think it’s all about storage.

In the storage world, Sun has innovated while IBM has stagnated. IBM largely sells its own old technology and resells storage technology built by others, such as NetApp and LSI. Sun – although it’s milked the technology acquired with the purchase of StorageTek – has recently returned to innovating.

IBM has been steadily losing market share in the storage market while Sun has been shaking things up with the new Storage 7000 Unified Storage System (look for my review soon), which pools multiple devices together to form a kind of network-based RAID and facilitates data migration across various hardware technologies housed in separate physical units. Coupling the Open Storage initiative with both commodity and high-performance storage devices in a tiered fashion has boosted Sun’s revenue in recent quarters.

One aspect that is worthy of consideration is the mainframe storage play. Believe it or not, there is still a lot of big iron out there that costs companies a small fortune to maintain. Replacing a single storage platter on a mainframe can cost thousands of dollars and does not move the company forward. Instead, it further locks it into running mission-critical apps on legacy (and expensive) hardware. Every company I’ve spoken to about this has said it can’t wait to get off the mainframe, but at the same time can’t migrate right away, because the apps are mission-critical.

I strongly suspect that if this scenario is true, then IBM is making the move to acquire Sun because Big Blue is sick of Fortune 500 companies migrating off IBM mainframes and onto commodity hardware from Sun, Hewlett-Packard or Dell.

Think about this pathway: every year, Company X throws money at keep the mainframe running optimally , with its mission-critical apps. The writing is on the wall and they know they need to get off the mainframe. Now, they can hire IBM Global Services to come in, partition the mainframe to also run OpenSolaris, and use Open Storage to add primary, secondary and tertiary storage using commodity storage hardware instead of expensive proprietary mainframe storage.

This applies especially to backup and archive, where needs continue to grow. While mainframe storage hardware prices are going up, prices of commodity storage that can be accessed using Open Storage are coming down.

Matthew D. Sarrel is executive director of Sarrel Group, an IT test lab, editorial services and consulting firm in New York.