Sun N1: Pioneering the dynamic enterprise

Radical approach liberates equipment by creating a pool of movable managed resources

In the fall of 2002, Sun Microsystems' President and CEO Scott McNealy sketched out a strategy that sounded too good to be true: Sun would foster a completely new way of allocating and managing enterprise IT assets. That strategy, given the moniker N1, is rooted in the radical notion that the server system of tomorrow would be a dynamic collection of computing, data storage, and networking assets. Instead of buying hardware with a specific task and purpose in mind, new equipment would go into a pool of managed resources. N1 would shuffle that gear around as needs change, with no regard for what it was bought to do, what software it came loaded with, or even what its purpose was earlier in the day (for more on creating a flexible enterprise, see Dawn of the Dynamic Enterprise).

It was a fine dream, but it wasn’t clear to many enterprise customers — including Sun’s own constituency — why they would want to move their assets around in such a manner. N1 does not follow the trail marked by other dynamic approaches such as the grid, utility, and on-demand computing initiatives promoted by IBM and Hewlett-Packard. Sun’s grid efforts had plenty of traction among its customers, and solutions already out, or in the near-term pipeline, seemed to fix the problem N1 was supposed to address, so the need for N1 wasn’t easy to convey. In a speech to analysts at the February 2003 N1 launch, McNealy warned the audience, “Most of you won’t get this.”

He wasn't kidding -- N1 takes far longer to describe than to demonstrate. Grid, utility, and on-demand models promote buying overcapacity because IT managers buy for peak projected utilization. Each department or function has a set of idle grid nodes or deactivated processor cards lying in wait for a spike in load, when the sleeping resources leap into action. In the case of on-demand computing, a processor card you haven’t used before results in a bill from the vendor -- the emphasis is on adapting to changes in function-specific workload.

N1, by contrast, promotes the more radical idea that all IT resources across traditional function and purpose boundaries are part of the same pool. N1 makes a lot more sense in modern business than solutions that effectively load-balance within a departmental or functional silo.

You can sometimes gauge the potential impact of a technology by the actions competitors take to keep it from taking hold. IBM, HP, and Microsoft publicly pretend to shrug off N1. Even if N1 is a dark horse, its mere appearance in the race has customers questioning the wisdom of buying hardware that is nailed to a role or even to a particular operating environment. Why should the e-commerce site buy new equipment to meet rising load when there are idle servers, empty drives, and open switch ports galore in the finance department?

The N1 console allows an administrator with fairly basic skills to reach across the network and pull in those resources without moving any cables or loading any CDs into the servers. If your company could do that at will, it would spend a lot less money on hardware and on per-CPU server software licenses.

Contrary to its rivals’ rhetoric, N1 is not only real but also powerfully compelling. However, it is not ideally flexible. So far, it only has the capability of virtualizing a limited selection of Sun-brand systems and storage gear, along with what Sun deems the most common network boxes from the likes of Cisco. It will take time for Sun to build out its portfolio of system and device profiles.

But N1 delivers on a key element of Sun’s expressed dream out of the gate: It handles Solaris, Linux, and Windows, and it works seamlessly with Sun’s new mixed-architecture (x86-32 and SPARC) Sun Fire Blade system. N1 takes time to understand because it challenges some long-standing IT procedural and cultural rules. Nevertheless, it is worth making the adjustment, if not for N1’s sake, then to migrate your company’s approach to the acquisition and allocation of computing equipment in line with new-era business requirements.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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