November 16, 2006

Is Sun Rediscovering its Creative Roots?

I recently attended a dinner party in San Francisco, courtesy of Sun Microsystems, that featured guests from eBay, PG&E, and of course Sun. Despite the abysmal traffic that all attendees faced in getting to downtown on a rainy night, eventually 25 or so folks enjoyed dinner together. Although one could easy have assumed that the topic de jure would have been about Sun’s or eBay’s latest product offering, the theme of the evening was about energy conservation. PG&E was touting some of its latest energy conservation initiatives aimed at the data center. Although the California utility is well known for its programs to prod customers into retiring aging and inefficient household appliances and lighting, its efforts targeting at IT infrastructure efficiency are less well known. Sun discussed the various rebates from PG&E that applied to new energy thrifty Sun servers and eBay talked about how they are becoming more energy efficient in their datacenter.

In other matters new and different, Sun recently announced Sun Startup Essentials, a program designed to enable early-stage companies to deploy Sun technology at price points commensurate with start up businesses. The announcement followed Sun's Startup Camp, which gathered more than 400 entrepreneurs to share their insights and experiences about turning ideas into viable businesses. Sun products eligible for discounts include its energy-efficient, Sun Fire x64 and Sun Fire T1000 and T2000 servers, as well as x64 and UltraSPARC-based workstations. According to Sun, the UltraSPARC-based Sun Fire T1000 and T2000 servers deliver 5x the performance of competitive servers, using 1/5 the power and 1/4 the space and are the only systems to qualify for a power rebate from PG&E.

The company also announced it is releasing its implementations of Java as free software under the GNU General Public License version two (GPLv2). Included in this release are the first pieces of source code (Java HotSpot [jvm], Java compiler [javac], and JavaHelp) for Sun's implementation of Java Platform Standard Edition (Java SE) as well as a buildable implementation of Java Platform Micro Edition (Java ME). In addition, Sun is adding the GPLv2 license to Java Platform Enterprise Edition (Java EE), which has been available for over a year under the Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL) through Project GlassFish. In addition to CDDL, Project GlassFish will also be available under GPLv2 in the first quarter of 2007.

OK, so Sun has been busy making announcements. In and of itself, this is no big deal, but when one stops to think about what is contained in the announcements, there is something much bigger to be gleaned. All of these activities represent the kind of game changing marketing that was historically associated with Sun. More than just saying, “Ours is better than yours” these announcements construct new opportunities through efforts to create new markets as opposed to simply playing king of the hill on tried and trued marketplaces. By emphasizing a new approach to financing startups, Sun is quite possibly bringing new customers into its fold that would likely otherwise have gone for the white box, or highest discounted price available approach. With its emphasis on energy efficiency and partnership with PG&E, Sun is looking to change the rules by which products will be assessed, and has brought in some creative outside financial incentives to help change the playing field as well. By releasing Java under the GPL, the company has finally changed its outmoded view that a key software should remain under Copernican lock and key and has instead chosen to join open community process with hopefully, further deployment of Java as a truly priceless technology.

This kind of creative behavior, as also noted with Project Blackbox, is a welcome return by Sun to its own startup mentality of snarky, dynamic, and a historically smart competitive playbook. Technology is cool and fun, if you are a geek, but for the rest of the market, it is a tool, or worse, a mystery. For those seeking tools to make their businesses operational competitive, however, technology is an afterthought, function is the paramount concern. Getting the message out to potential customers is a long term endeavor, but one that pays substantial dividends for those who have a differentiating message and take the time to articulate it.

While it was a raining evening outside of the dinner party, inside we were treated to an illuminating look at how some traditional, and not so traditional, IT players were seeking to create new opportunity and bolster competitive advantage. It is this very kind of discussion and general business focused thinking that the marketplace is looking to vendors to provide, and happily, at least some are beginning to step up to the plate. Now of course, my trip in and out of downtown would have been more efficient, and actually less costly, if I had only taken the subway rather than driving, I would have experienced greater energy efficiency, and saved time and money. Perhaps I should have listened more intently to the presenters at the dinner party.

November 15, 2006

How to turn a digital music player into a mobile phone

This week Microsoft launched the much anticipated Zune and the world trembled to see if finally a new device could take on the Apple iPod.  While there are plenty of other digital music players out there, none have been able to reach the popularity of the iPod.  Microsoft has thrown the gauntlet down and they think they can succeed on a couple of fronts.

First, the Zune is fairly similar to the iPod so it’s not as though new ground has been broken on the design front.  There are those who like its larger screen and the fact that it’s a little longer than an iPod, and there are those who don’t.  There are those who like the fact that you can watch the video in either portrait or landscape mode.  But the real excitement according to the buzz is that Microsoft has built in wireless capabilities so that two Zunes can communicate with each other and music can be passed between devices.

This of course has led to lots and lots and lots of speculation over feature wars – something that technology vendors specialize in.

At this point I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they are missing the point.  I have a mobile phone (a really awful Panasonic that I dream of getting rid of but that’s another story) and all I want it to do is make and receive phone calls that last until I want them to end and not for arbitrary other reasons.  Yes I like features like a directory and ringtones.  However, I do not want to watch tv on my phone.  I don’t want to surf the web on my phone, and I do not want to listen to music on my phone.  I want to call or text people.  Period.  And the really annoying thing about mobile phones is that instead of coming out with more rational user-friendly software or superior sound quality or comfort they come out with more useless, overpriced, ridiculously unnecessary features.  Go ask 3 of your friends right now how many features they use on their mobile phones.  If you’re in America they probably don’t use any of them.  European football fans probably use a few more.

So the intuitive leap is this – I want my digital music player to play music with really good quality.  Then there are some other features – but I’m not going to get into that here either – but I assure you that they do not include watching films, watching videos, scrolling through photos or communicating wirelessly with other people.  

However, if you ARE going to enable wireless communication, make it interesting. (For the ironically impaired – the following is sarcastic) how about making them capable of sensing music that is on other people’s systems and if you find out that you have certain music in common they turn a nice sunny yellow?  Or if they are full of really annoying music you hate, a red flashing light appears to warn you to avoid that person as their taste in music is abhorrent (user-defined parameters naturally.) We could then create viruses that download say – the entire Mariah Carey catalog on to some unsuspecting listener’s device and then it dials up the RIAA and gives them your home address and a detailed listing of what’s on your device and how you got it.  Now those are features.

I’m not holding my breath on the Zune.  But I am looking forward to outrageous marketing wars from Microsoft and Apple.

November 03, 2006

Isilon Ahead by A Nose

By Susan Dietz

Isilon Systems today announced the release of a single file system that unifies and provides instant and ubiquitous access to digital content and unstructured data, the OneFS4.5.  This is the next-generation Isilon IQ clustered storage software system, and can power all of Isilon’s family of clustered storage software systems, including the Isilon IQ 1920, 3000, 6000, Accelerator, and EX 6000.  With the release of its OneFS 4.5 operating system software, Isilon ushers a larger capacity of data management that will deliver one petabyte of capacity and 10 gigabytes per second of performance in a single file system and single volume. This system is designed to eliminate the cost and complexity barriers of traditional storage architectures.  Among its features are the ability to scale to one petabyte of capacity, archive up to 10 gigabytes per second, and a data protection system wherein customers can withstand the loss of three or four simultaneous disks or nodes within very large clusters while at the same time maintaining 100 percent availability of all of the data.  The data protection system is called N+3 and N+4.  The stated goal of the new OneFS 4.5 system is to let enterprises bring their huge data archives online, thereby making them as accessible as any other critical business information.

Once upon a time, computer storage used to be measured by megabytes.  Isilon’s leap into the forefront of the storage arena seems to be generating quite a buzz with its introduction of mega storage, and has perhaps contributed to Isilon’s recent application for an IPO.  In conjunction with other recent announcements, these products may just be what launch Isilon into the big leagues.  With recent legislation concerning electronic discovery laws, storage systems and quick and easy access to data is suddenly much more important to a company’s success.  Legal fees are bad enough, but paying those fees for every hour that the legal team is pawing through year’s worth of data could conceivably break some companies.  So while storage may not be glamorous, it is vitally important.  Isilon’s new system may not rock the entire market, but it does raise the bar significantly.  The ability of the system to protect data from spontaneous loss is likely to be one of the more important selling points for the customers.

Gone are the dusty rooms full of file cabinets that the unlucky clerk was relegated to on a semi-regular basis.  The area of data storage has come into its own and is no longer an afterthought when a company sets up or renovates its IT department. Data storage is now just as if not more important than processor speeds and desktop applications.  Now, if companies can start keeping all of their data and not just the most current at their fingertips, it will most likely positively affect business models across the board from sales and customer service to accounting to electronic discovery.  A customer’s entire history could be accessible to anyone in the company at any time, thus most likely increasing sales and ensuring the customer has a positive experience regardless of which person within the company is their contact.