This morning I woke up to Bloomberg reporter, Ian King, explaining to Bernie Lo, Bloomberg’s Hong Kong anchor, that IBM is talking to Sun [8] about buying the latter. King pointed to a story on the Wall Street Journal [9], citing the acquisition of Sun by IBM [10] would bolster Big Blue’s “heft on the Internet, in software and in finance and telecommunications markets.”

What a lame excuse! IBM has a significant presence on the Web, just read Lou Gerstner’s autobiography, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance [11]. Most people may not know it but IBM is a software company too. Its been in the Software Magazine 500 Software companies list for several years. Its mainframe-related software business alone should dwarf many pure play software vendors out there. Granted it doesn’t have JAVA, a Sun original IP, but it has its own string of innovations from time immemorial. MySQL is another story though.

Anyway, this is a storage blog so let’s stay focus. Relative to IBM, Sun’s storage business is mostly OEMed from other vendors – LSI [12], Engenio [13] (acquired by LSI), and Dot Hill [14] (lowend to midrange), and Hitachi (enterprise). Its tape is largely an acquisition – StorageTek. So from a hardware perspective, Sun doesn’t have much of a home-grown offering. But who cares? Certainly not Sun customers. They buy Sun for its solution sets, its expertise, and its history in high performance computing workstations and depth of knowledge/experience of the Web. Oh yeah, its Open Software strategy has been at the forefront of media coverage too.

So why would IBM buy Sun? Beats that pants out of me. IBM has a full range of storage (disk, tape and software) offerings – some of it OEMed, some of it as a result of acquisitions, and some of it OEMed. Its 2007-2008 acquisition list [15] is impressive. Diligent Technologies (data deduplication), FilesX (continuous data protection), XIV (SAN and clustering), Arsenal Digital Solutions (data protection), NovusCG (storage management of heterohenous environments), Princeton Softech (data archiving, data classification, data discovery), and Softek Storage (data migration).

So why buy Sun?

Acquisitions usually happen to (1) bring in new technology that the buyer doesn’t have; (2) take out a competitor and grab marketshare; or (3) get the customer base. In this case, I’d speculate it may be a combination of all three but certainly individually, Sun doesn’t have much to offer IBM. Sun’s Open Source Storage Strategy has a long-term potential to throw a spanner on IBM’s storage management software business. Heck it has the potential to mess around with everyone major storage vendor’s software strategy today. ZFS promises to make data software management ‘almost free’.

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In the IT enduser community, the idea of Open Source brings with it a plethora of elation as well as fear. Ask anyone who is an IBM AS/400 and they will tell you that they are stuck in their for life – at least until they decide to get out of what they put themselves into.

Yes, IBM AS/400 (rebranded as IBM System i in 2006 and subsequently replaced by the IBM Power System line) is a very stable platform. The many applications developed for it are rock solid, enterprise-class software that do what they are meant to do. Throughout its period of reincarnation (1988 to present), the hardware and software may have changed but IBM made sure the applications are transplanted. 

I am digressing so let me paraphrase one CIO comment about their AS/400 investment. “We are stuck and we know we are paying through the nose but we have no alternative today!”

Distributed Computing (DC) arose partly in response to the need to get out of the mainframe and mini-computer era of vendor lock-in. Little did we know that while DC hailed the arrival of an army of vendors offering competing and complementary systems, the liberation was partial – because many of the initial technologies created in support of DC are proprietary in nature. Sure they are able to talk to other vendor’s solutions but this is because application programming interface (API) were built to allow for some semblance of interoperability.

Enter Open Source. The idea that a program’s code is freely available to the end-user community to use and modify to suite a particular need. Can a software company survive giving away its software? Red Hat thinks so. In fact, within the Open Source community, Red Hat is a testament to the idea that you can give away copies of your software (even if it was originally conceived by someone else), make money and prosper.

SUN Microsystems is another company that is heavy into the Open Source momentum. But whereas RedHat is 100% open source, SUN still has technology that is proprietary – afterall, SUN started life in the proprietary world. It can be argued that JAVA was SUN’s first experiment in Open Source. Thankfully, the JAVA community thrives today despite competition.

As with all things, proven or otherwise, there are skeptics. In human nature, the biggest fear is always that of the unknown. For many enterprises whose businesses depend on the smooth running of mission-critical applications, the high price associated with proprietary hardware, middleware or operating systems, custom application, and availability of skilled resources is a bitter sweet pill that they’d readily swallow.

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