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Sun's network blueprint

Everything you ever wanted to know about Sun's
strategy for helping users network their computers.

By Cynthia Kurkowski

November  1995
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While AT&T, MCI, and the cable television companies fuss over blueprints for the future's broad-band network, Sun Microsystems is using familiar technology to bring the next generation network to people now.

"The Internet is the wild card turning this [networking] business upside-down," said Bill Lee, vice president of engineering at Sun Microsystems. "The Internet is making available what people thought were only available in broad-band networks. The Internet is today's broad-band network."

Sun's Internet-centric networking strategy will allow companies to integrate Sun networks with other networks, such as NetWare, so users can access databases and legacy systems where critical information resides -- regardless of its location. Sun is leveraging its Internet expertise and servers to migrate networks to a distributed configuration that transfers the burden of application processing from the desktop to specialized servers.

Sun Microsystems' July reorganization reflects the company's latest networking strategy. The Networking and NAD (Network Attached Devices) Group now encompasses application-specific servers and the Internet server. Sun's new business model emphasizes specific customer technology requirements for the deployment of network computing.

To support its holistic, network-centric pitch, Sun introduced the Network Business Advantage Program, a sales program emphasizing three commercial markets Sun views as critical: data warehousing, customer management, and business/financial applications. The Network Business Advantage solutions come Internet-enabled, and ready to use the Netra Internet Server. The program's mission, said Lee, is to allow companies to take full advantage of what network computing can bring to the business.

Sun's Internet networking initiative also calls for the addition and improvement of administrative tools to ease the configuration and management of heterogeneous networks.


Broadband networking today with the Internet
Sun officials see the Internet explosion as a significant event in Sun's history. As more administrators evaluate Internet access solutions, Sun's reputation as an Internet access pioneer will serve to attract new customers to its fold, Sun hopes.

"We're not trying to re-architect the Internet -- half the Internet servers are running Solaris," said Tony Hampel, Solaris workgroup server product marketing, SunSoft. "You don't have to throw out existing equipment to use the Internet. For instance, we're leveraging the existing Solaris x86 Server Suite as an Internet upgrade to Novell NetWare networks since Novell doesn't have the Internet component."

The Solaris x86 Server Suite is a TCP/IP-to-NFS bridge for connecting mainframes and minicomputers with PC LANs, and Unix networks. The suite, which includes an application server, a PC network administration server, and an Internet gateway server, lets Microsoft Windows users access 32-bit client/server database applications and the Internet via a single-entry point for secure transactions.

Another way Sun is bringing Internet computing to the PC desktop is through its SolarNet product family. The SolarNet PC Internet client is an integrated toolset consisting of Netscape Navigator, a news reader, an advanced e-mail client for Windows, and a remote link manager for dial-up services. The Internet Gateway for Solaris creates a server for Internet electronic mail and applications for TCP/IP networks.

SunSoft continues to expand its line of Internet-access offerings for broad-band networking performance in heterogeneous environments. In August, SunSoft introduced SolarNet WebScout 1.0, a commercial Internet access software product for PC-NFS networks with support for Microsoft Windows 95.

SunSoft also has signed an agreement with Internet Junction to allow Sun to implement Internet Junction's IPX-to-IP gateway technology. SunSoft's implementation, the SolarNet IPX Gateway, will first be offered in Sun's Netra Internet Server series. The gateway will allow NetWare users to connect to the Internet and access TCP/IP-based applications through a single IP address. By residing on Solaris, the gateway will eliminate the need to load TCP/IP stacks onto NetWare-based PCs in order to run TCP/IP applications.

"We're taking our Internet solutions and integrating them with networks already in place with tools for doing business on the Internet," Hampel said. He explained it's a matter of reminding non-Sun users that Sun offers sophisticated Internet products, and then teach them how to use the technology and products.

Freeing up bandwidth with specialized servers
As multimedia or compute-intensive applications begin to eat up a computer's processing power, and the demand for bandwidth increases, the network begins to take on a different role. Sun sees the network as a source for delivering the power the computer once generated.

"We say the network is the computer. Look at how individuals are using computers," said Lee. "The desktop is only one part. The PC has become the peripheral on the network."

The use of specialized servers for databases and Internet access transfers the burden of compute-intensive applications from the desktop to network. Last May, Sun introduced a line of specialized servers, including the Netra Internet server which is reported to be the best selling server. The Netra Internet Server comes configured with Internet-enabling software and the Solaris operating system. The Netra Internet Server provides a single point of Internet access for tighter security and control while cutting down the cost of software and clearing up network bandwidth. According to Lee, general-purpose servers along with specialized servers for Internet access, video, and file storage configured with Fast Ethernet and ATM switches will bring high-bandwidth performance to the desktop.

[Bring high-bandwidth performance to the desktop with specialized servers, Fast 
Ethernet, and ATM switches, 11K GIF.]

"We provide the ability to preserve the LAN while expanding the network's reach with specialized servers," said Cheryl Salatino, director of marketing, PC networking products for SunSoft. "In the NetWare environment, we don't require them to put anything on the their clients."

PC networking challenges
Sun and third parties are integrating PC networks with TCP/IP technology to take advantage of Unix's powerful processing. The cross-industry move to embrace TCP/IP as a de facto standard, including Microsoft, which offers it in its NT operating system, has eased Sun's formidable task of connecting Sun servers to the PC desktop.

"Clearly, TCP/IP has won the war. It scales, it's extensible, it performs, it works -- it's the ubiquitous network," said Hampel, who seems to discount the importance of the Novell NetWare installed base.

In the TCP/IP-based PC LAN environment, Salatino said the greatest challenge currently facing Sun is to provide system administrators with the tools to easily configure and manage the heterogeneous networks from a centralized console with a familiar interface. Tasks like adding/deleting users and authorizing application access -- tasks considered simple in homogeneous networks -- are time-consuming operations in the TCP/IP-PC network environment. As a result, the cost of network administration and support personnel is enormous compared to the initial equipment investment. The initiative to provide system administration tools evolves around the SolarNet PC-Admin package.

SolarNet PC-Admin complements current PC LAN technology, by co-existing with Novell NetWare, Microsoft LAN Manager, or Windows for Workgroups, as you migrate to a large-scale TCP/IP computing environment. SolarNet PC-Admin delivers the client/server tools system administrators need to automate PC installation and management. Its also centralizes information and control while allowing distributed access from the administrator's desktop PC.

Salatino said SunSoft wants to ease the burden of ownership and bring more feature-rich network-based applications to TCP/IP networks. SunSoft enhanced the SolarNet product family in May to bring groupware capabilities with Network Central which allows PC-NFSpro users to create a "virtual file cabinet" for sharing information and ideas.

SunSoft also has plans to provide system administrators with easier configuration tools. An enhanced rev of PC-NFSpro soon to be released will offer both SLIP and Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) support, and come pre-loaded with configuration information on the client for quick and easy access by administrators. A future PCX version will provide automatic disk synchronization between desktop and laptop disks.

In addition, SunSoft is working with CommTouch, Inc. to bundle CommTouch, Inc.'s Pronto E Mail with WebScout 1.0, SunSoft's Internet access package, and SunSoft's NFS products to ensure TCP/IP users have robust e-mail with easy drag-and-drop functionality and remote electronic mail capabilities. Salatino's group is also working with AttachMate to bundle its NetWizard with the Netra Internet Server to bring software distribution capabilities to the SolarNet networks.

Banking on standard technologies
Sun has four stories to tell when asked about networking technology. For high-speed, cost-is-no-object customers, the company offers an ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Method) product. For demanding users with an eye on cost, Sun offers Fast Ethernet (a.k.a. 100BaseT) add-in cards. And for Wide Area Networking, some Sun computers offer ISDN options.

Lee said for the today's network, the above three are crucial to scalable, high-performance Internet-style computing. To meet immediate broad-band networking needs, Lee said FDDI is appropriate, but its cost does not make it a strong contender for global broad-band networking.

Sun's support of ATM and Fast Ethernet technologies goes back to their development. Sun was a founder of the ATM Forum, a vendor group responsible for driving the development and deployment of ATM. According to Lee, ATM will not only be used as a switching mechanism on the broad-band network, but, in some cases, will be employed as links to the desktop.

Sun's ATM card, dubbed SunATM, a single-slot SBus card, promises 155 megabits per second bandwidth. Sun officials say its future versions will offer rates of up to 2.4 gigabits per second. New ATM offerings from Sun are expected in November, 1995.

While the history of Fast Ethernet has yet to be written, most pundits today say Fast Ethernet, which operates at 100 megabits per second, will replace Ethernet (a 10 megabit per second network) in workstation use. Pundits also foresee Fast Ethernet swamping the rival "speedier replacement for Ethernet" 100-VG AnyLAN as the next-generation topology. While 100-VG AnyLAN offers appealing features to users wishing to pipe real-time video and audio streams through their networks, 100BaseT offers compatibility with existing wire, protocol analyzers, and most importantly, old 10BaseT network segments and devices. In January 1994, Sun was the first computer vendor to introduce a Fast Ethernet adapter.

"Fast Ethernet is a technology in the business world that is causing an explosion of capabilities at the desktop. Suddenly, your 10 megabit per second network is a delivering 100 megabit per second performance at a price of about $100, which virtually anyone can afford," Lee said. He believes in the longevity of Fast Ethernet given the fact that 10 megabit per second Ethernet has provided adequate network performance for 15 years.

Fast Ethernet has received wide-spread industry support from both communications/networking companies and systems vendors, including IBM, SGI, Intel, 3COM, Bay Networks, SMC, and Cisco (which recently purchased Grand Junction, a leader of Fast Ethernet technology). Fast Ethernet enthusiasts are so confident about the technology's acceptance and longevity that the Fast Ethernet Alliance officially dissolved itself at this fall's Interop. The alliance has reportedly served its purpose and accomplished its objectives to cooperatively contribute to the technology, and help drive the establishment of Fast Ethernet standards and interoperability through the IEEE. The IEEE committees have begun several Fast Ethernet initiatives which promise to extend the technologies' capabilities to match next century's networking needs.

Howard Frazier, SMMC network architect and former chair of the Fast Ethernet 100BaseT2 IEEE committee, provides an overview how Fast Ethernet will evolve over the next few years. Frazier said that in the near term -- within a year and a half -- network administrators can expect to see full-duplex operation added to Fast Ethernet adapters to enable simultaneous send/receive transmissions without collisions. Within two years, Fast Ethernet will be extended to offer full-duplex operation on categories 3 through 5 wiring on two pairs of wires.

However, the greatest benefit of Fast Ethernet's scalability will be realized after two years have passed and the standard for 1000 megabit -- Gigabit Ethernet -- is developed. Frazier said the 1000Base-F, employed at the servers and interconnecting switches, will incorporate fiber optic links to reach the gigabit transmission levels.

"No technology jump is required [to develop 1000Base-F], said Frazier. "We'll just borrow the components used for ATM and FDDI. Network administrators will be able to build entire Ethernet-based networks and pick out whatever speed is appropriate for each area." For instance, while 1 gigabit may be used at the servers and connection devices, 100-megabit adapter cards will most likely reside at the workstation.

In addition, Frazier predicts that Fast Ethernet adapters will replace Ethernet adapters next year, making the 10 megabit card virtually obsolete, "Adapters are starting to sell for nothing. Over the next three to six months, 10-megabit cards for PCI bus architectures will disappear due to the leveling off of the market. We're moving towards making 10-megabit performance a default in 100-megabit adapter cards."

The SunFast Ethernet adapter is a single-wide SBus card that offers 10 megabits per second or 100 megabits per second network bandwidth over a variety of wiring types (unshielded twisted pair (UTP), shielded twisted pair (STP), and Fiber optic cables) via external third-party transceivers. A Media Independent Interface (MII) enables connection to external third party transceivers. The MII allows the card to run over various wiring types using specific third party transceivers. The first third party transceiver to be available is expected to support two-pair, category 5 UTP wiring.

Future networking initiatives
Just because Sun is concentrating on bringing broad-band functionality to networks today does not mean that the company is not looking to the future. For the development of an open, broad-band network, Lee said cable-modem technology and Java, its own programming language, will play important roles. According to Lee, Sun is involved in the development of cable-modem technology, but reminds users that it is only one piece of the puzzle.

"The Java language will allow you to run applications across any system on the network. This is a key component to building the next generation of networks," said Lee.

Like other systems vendors serious about building the mega broad-band network of tomorrow, Sun has partnered with telecommunications leaders such as AT&T. Sun's close relationship with telecos has positioned the company to work with broad-band initiatives on the ground level. "We're working with many telecos to include intuitive switches, voice mail, and audit switches," said Glen Kessleman, product driver manager for Sun Microsystems.

"We believe the industry will come to where we are in terms of the Internet," said Hampel. "At Interop, Microsoft announced Unix functionalities, a browser development project, and leveraging of Microsoft Exchange (Windows 95's fax and e-mail tool) when its available. Sun has all this. By the time, Microsoft gets to where we are, we won't be there anymore. We'll have moved on."

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