Sun: We're not late in cloud game

Dismissing industry comments that it's late in announcing strategy for the platform, Sun Microsystems says cloud movement is only just starting.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

NEW YORK--Sun Microsystems has finally announced its cloud initiative, along with the launch of its own public cloud, and rebuffs suggestions that the company is late in unveiling a strategy for this space.

After months of anticipation, Sun on Wednesday laid out its plans for offering cloud technologies and services at the company's CommunityOne developer conference here, where executives also refused to comment on speculation that the company is in merger talks with IBM.

Cloud not quite yet

Sun will only begin offering cloud services in early-June, when it plans to allow a select group of developers access to private beta releases and some live applications, said Lew Tucker, Sun's CTO for cloud computing.
From there, Tucker estimated it would take another six to nine months before Sun opens its cloud to the Asia-Pacific region. "We want to see what we can learn first from the initial beta so we can take what works into the other clouds that follow," he told ZDNet Asia.
Pricing details for the company's cloud services have yet to be finalized, said Dave Douglas, Sun's senior vice president for cloud computing and developer platforms. But he added that it is "well-aware of market expectations" and intends to be competitive against existing offerings in the market.

The announcement included plans to offer computing and storage services via cloud, and partnerships with market players such as cloud storage provider Zmanda, and university project Eucalyptus, an open source initiative that aims to help others build clouds.

Sun also launched its first cloud component, dubbed Sun Cloud--the company's own public cloud that executives say encompasses its products such as xVM and MySQL, and open communities that include OpenOffice.org and NetBeans. In addition, it unveiled Project Kenai--a public API repository, operating under the Creative Commons license, where developers can build, load and review applications.

"Everyone's talking about clouds but what it boils down to for developers are that they will bring a dramatically increased level of choice to developers," said Dave Douglas, Sun's senior vice president for cloud computing and developer platforms.

Cloud brings "fundamental shifts" for developers, he said, primarily the freedom to choose the types of applications they want to build and the platforms on which they want to build. They also will have self-service provisioning, with the ability to scale up or down according to their requirements and pay only for what they utilize, Douglas said.

The company's value proposition is its strong focus on developers and ensuring APIs (application programming interfaces) abound, including its own, for this community to build for the cloud. Douglas also believes the industry will deploy a mix of public as well as private clouds, where the latter are needed to address concerns businesses such as those in the financial market, may have about data security in a cloud environment. And Sun is aiming to provide the infrastructure, technologies and services needed to build and support those private clouds, he said.

Sun's announcement today follows that of other major industry players that have already announced their cloud strategies, including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

And the company's tardiness in entering the cloud space could prove to be its biggest challenge, according to an industry analyst.

"Sun is playing catch up here."
-- Willy Chiu
IBM Cloud Labs

"Sun is late to the market, and has said as much," Chris Morris, IDC's Asia-Pacific director of services research, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail. He noted that the company in December 2008 announced it had stopped accepting new customers for Network.com, its previous utility computing service, which was launched in 2005.

Sun had then explained it would approach a cloud strategy that includes leveraging open source and working with partners that have cloud experience.

Cloud may still be in its infancy as a viable offering for business customers, but IBM, HP, Oracle, Microsoft and others in the industry have gone further down the path than Sun, in announcing their cloud offerings and alliances, Morris said.

Sun executives, however, said the cloud movement was "only just starting", with enterprises only now just factoring the platform into their strategy.

"We don't think we're late in the game," Douglas said, noting that current market players currently only "have pieces" of cloud available. IBM, for instance, has yet to say much about its APIs for the cloud and has not adopted an approach that is tightly focused on developers, as Sun has, he said.

"We think we're in a good spot," he said.

Potential for success
According to Morris, Sun does have the building blocks for a successful cloud computing strategy.

"On the engineering side of the ledger, Sun is in good shape with cloud-enablement software, virtualization technologies and open source--with Java, OpenSolaris and MySQL--and, importantly, a Sun xVM management framework that hosts and manages software stacks for other vendors' VMs (virtual machines)," he explained.

"Importantly, Sun has technologies that address two of the biggest challenges facing cloud computing for enterprise applications--availability and security. Both will be absolutely essential as cloud computing becomes a staple of enterprise computing for workloads that would otherwise require expanding a customer's data center," the IDC analyst added.

But, while Morris said Sun is well-positioned to provide the infrastructure necessary to support cloud computing, he noted that there are other cloud players in the market able to do the same including IBM, HP and Dell Computer.

"Sun's capabilities are strong in server, storage and some applications areas, but they need to quickly define their solution offerings for cloud computing," he added.

Meanwhile, rival IBM is banking on its early entry into the market as a differentiator.

"Sun is playing catch up here," Willy Chiu, vice president of IBM Cloud Labs and HiPODS (high-performance on-demand solutions), said in an e-mail interview. "With deep roots in every major technological breakthrough over the last century, IBM is already working with governments, advanced commercial clients and universities across the world to leverage cloud computing."

For instance, Chiu said, the company just last week announced the completion of its SmartBay pilot project with Marine Institute Ireland. Applications and tools such as monitoring services and data collection, used in the pilot were delivered via the cloud platform.

In the Asia-Pacific region, he said, IBM Cloud Labs are currently implementing a suite of healthcare data-sharing and analytics technologies for the Guang Dong Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Chiu noted that Big Blue will also be unveiling new cloud computing initiatives in Hong Kong in the coming months, a move that follows its acquisition of Outblaze, a Hong Kong-based provider of online messaging and collaboration services.

He added that China's Wang Fu Jing Department Store is an IBM cloud customer that consumes services such as supply chain management software, over the Web.

According to Chiu, IBM stakes its cloud leadership in the breadth of its offerings--encompassing software, services and systems--which, he said, no other company currently provides. It also built 13 cloud computing centers worldwide for clients including China and Vietnam, he added.

The company operates over 8 million square feet of data center, which is more than any other company has today, and has committed more than 200 researchers globally focused on Internet-scale computing, he said.

Other players such as Red Hat, welcomed the entrance of Sun.

Gery Messer, Asia-Pacific and Japan president of Red Hat, said Sun's play for the cloud space "validates" its own priority and bet on cloud computing.

"Red Hat encourages collaborative innovation in cloud computing, where a connected worldwide community shares in the development of innovative solutions," Messer said. "The more development interest in cloud, the better it is for adopters of cloud services. It is less about which vendor has the larger portfolio, but more the case of which vendor has the critical technology for building clouds."

Red Hat's differentiator comes in the form of its close association with the open source community and its virtualization technology, Enterprise Virtualization, he said. "Without virtualization, cloud computing would not be economically practical...[and] Red Hat's advantage also lies in the support of the powerful open source development community," he said.

Cloud may pave recovery
Morris said cloud could very well be Sun's ticket out of its troubled financial past, but noted that success will depend on how well the company is able to follow through with its cloud initiative.

"Sun will have to execute its strategy very well, and much of its cloud direction is not yet known," he explained in the e-mail, before today's announcement. "Given its 'network is the computer' motto, the expectations for Sun's cloud computing strategy are likely to be high. Its long-time network-enablement focus and off-the-shelf products appear to make Sun a company that is well-positioned to enter this emerging market segment."

The IDC analyst noted that a cloud computing business plan must be rolled out on an ecosystem that includes a well-defined formal launch announcement, clear outline of the service offerings and industry partnerships.

Sun, he suggested, will have to demonstrate innovation in its offerings, as well as address ease-of-use and self-provisioning services needed to speed up deployments for customers. Amid a marketplace already abuzz and bustling over the cloud hype, Sun will need to be particularly clear about why its offerings stand out from its competitors, he said.

He added that the Asia-Pacific market remains skeptical of the value of cloud computing, so messages about the business model and how it fits into the strategy of regional companies need to be well-communicated.

"Also, there is a need for local applications that match local requirements and local service providers with market credibility," Morris said. "Prime concerns around cloud services are security, performance and availability. Unless a vendor can address these concerns within the region, they will not be successful."

Eileen Yu of ZDNet Asia reported from Sun Microsystems' CommunityOne developer conference in New York, USA.

Editorial standards