Updated from 6 p.m. EST

As expected, Sun Microsystems ( SUNW) dropped its gloves at the feet of EMC ( EMC) and IBM ( IBM) today with the announcement of its new line of "end-to-end" storage offerings.

As promised during its second-quarter fiscal 2002 earnings report on Jan. 18, Sun delivered a lineup of new products at its analyst meeting Wednesday afternoon at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. The new offerings include new midrange storage servers and software put together in a package Sun named Storage ONE, an acronym for Open Network Environment.

Sun unveiled two new lines of servers that spent the early part of the presentation shrouded under a silver tarp (possibly made of satin but more likely not). The newly unveiled 3900 and 6900 series products attack the mid-level market, with the 3900 focusing on storage cluster servers, and the 6900 aimed at midrange users who would like to consolidate their storage.

Sun also updated its existing line of high-end 9900s to better reach out to customers who run storage-intensive data centers.

Sun has recently fallen on hard times after customers who stocked up on pricey hardware in 1999 and 2000 dramatically cut back after the bursting of the Dot.com and Nasdaq bubbles decimated IT spending. Sun posted a loss in the September and December quarters although chief executive Scott McNealy reiterated Tuesday the company still expects to return to profitability in its June quarter. EMC also is suffering from a dramatic pullback in hardware sales, and it dove into the red in its two most recent quarters.

Sun, whose shares have fallen more than 80% since September 2000, is seeking to expand its product offerings to find new areas of growth in an environment where IT managers are increasingly cost conscious.

John Maxwell, Sun's vice president of marketing, declared Sun's platform utilizes as much of 80% of storage capacity, compared with 20% to 40% for Windows services and up to 50% for Unix systems, citing data from Gartner Group.

By "optimizing" storage resources and applications, corporations can generate greater return on assets, he claimed.

Mark Canepa, executive vice president of network storage at Sun, suggested there is a $25 billion market opportunity for storage solutions and predicted that 60% of it was "addressable" by Sun's new products.

Some analysts in attendance expressed skepticism that Sun will be able to win over existing customers of EMC, which has a better reputation for safekeeping of corporation's most critical data.

Indeed, EMC has been eating Sun's lunch in recent years, accounting for 41% of the storage attached to Sun's own servers in 2000, according to Gartner Group.

Short-term, Sun's intent is to recoup that territory as part of its longer-term objective of taking on IBM.

"When you go head to head with IBM now, we don't have to have EMC in there," Zander said at the launch, stressing that customers increasingly preferred to buy products from one source.

A key element of Sun's new offering are several lines of software designed by Sun which the company says are "hardware agnostic" but are optimized for users of Sun's Solaris operating system.

Sun developed the software internally, mainly via expertise acquired through past purchases of Highground, LSC and Encore Computer, among other firms.

Sun may be becoming more of a software developer, something skeptics say few -- if any -- hardware firms have had success doing. Regardless, Sun executives took great pains to dispel speculation that its new software initiatives represent a change in its longstanding relationship with Veritas ( VRTS), a leading provider of storage software.

"Let there be no confusion, Veritas is a strategic partner that is complementary in most areas although we compete in some," Sun president Ed Zander said in a Q&A session which followed the company's formal presentation.

Kathleen Holmgren, who handles the Veritas relationship as Sun's vice president of network storage, was equally adamant in an exclusive interview after the event.

"We have a strong partnership," Holmgren said of Veritas, noting she has had several meetings in recent weeks with the software maker's executives, including CEO Gary Bloom.

Presumably, those conversations included a level of reassurance that may have been lost on investors, who have pushed Veritas shares down nearly 25% since the market's recent top on Jan. 4. Senior Writer Tish Williams contributed to this report

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