Oh boy, has a lot ever changed since I wrote Sun was cool. In the time between, Sun has done some very cool stuff.

Moving the Sparc family out of the hot-rod-single-CPU (i.e. PC) race into a high-net-throughput, power-efficient multi-core design is cool (no pun intended). Makes perfect sense. Far more daring than I then expected from Sun. Buying CPUs for “hot rod” applications from AMD (and now Intel) makes perfect sense, and covers the case where customers need x86 compatibility.

Maybe because my first job out of college involved writing hard disk drives and file system code, but it has always seemed to me that we were not getting all the performance possible out of disk storage. Seemed that at the intersection of RAID, journaling, and copy-on-write you could do something really interesting. Design is a bit tricky, and requires serious thought. (One of those “interesting” problems I thought would be fun to work on, given the chance.) Someone finally did the work in ZFS. ZFS came from Sun (not Microsoft, not IBM, or anyone else).

untitledEven more audacious is Sun’s Project Blackbox. The notion of engineering the equivalent of a data center in standard shipping container is brilliant. Today most “data-centers” are effectively built one-at-a-time in the field. Getting a data center up and running is expensive and risky. Each data center is probably a unique combination of power, cooling, networks, and computers. Unique combinations are going to have unique problems. Problems mean going back to the vendors - often with many rounds of troubleshooting. Many iterations mean time and money wasted.

When Introducing Project Blackbox Jonathan touched on how designing the “datacenter” as an integrated unit pays big benefits. By engineering the whole package, Sun can design and load up exactly the right power, cooling and networks for the computers needed. By assembling and testing the entire package at Sun, the customer can expect to save ($$) a huge whack of the usual “integration” time. Add to this a big box full of disks that with ZFS you can let fail in place. (Ever buy a replacement disk for a four year old RAID? If so fail-in-place should make sense to you.) The benefits multiply, rather than add.

I thought the benefits of this all should be pretty obvious. Searching the web I see there are more than a few folk who still do not get it. No, the Blackbox is not just another mobile center. The mobile part is useful, but almost incidental. The advantage is the fact that you get a fully integrated, tested, and functional datacenter in a box. By assembling the entire datacenter as a unit, Sun can save customers time and money, while still turning a decent profit. This is a good deal all around.

Would you consider buying a car or television as parts, and assembling it yourself? In the usual case, no, as the do-it-yourself approach is going to cost you both time and money, and in most cases, there is no advantage.

Sure, other folk have done datacenter-in-a-box stunts before - but they were nothing more than stunts. You need all the pieces before this becomes an integrated whole, and an effective offering. Many of the pieces require deep expertise on the part of the company behind the product. Essential bits needed include …

  • You need an operating system throughly suited for large-scale lights-out managed-system operation. Sun has Solaris.
  • You want hardware that performs well at a reasonable price. You need hardware designed to work well with the operating system (no corners cut). Sun designs and builds some very nicely done hardware.
  • You need cost effective and reliable storage. With ZFS the Sun folk can take full advantage of mass-market hard disks. ZFS enables a cost/performance/reliability combination no one else can match. Sun’s box-full-of-disks “Thumper” product without ZFS would be just a stunt. With ZFS you have something very interesting.
  • You need broad expertise from the vendor. As a customer, this means you have one place to go for a resolution.

Big companies tend to get, well … beige. Perhaps Sun was always colorful on the inside, but on the outside … for a while, not so much. Sun has suddenly become colorful - in a creative and insightful sense. Very cool.