The enterprise data storage industry is very young, very complex, and has become one of the hottest sectors over the past eighteen months. Companies are scrambling to provide the least complex, most economical solutions to their customer's data overload woes and to establish themselves as dominant forces in the promising data storage business.

In order to gain perspective on one of the emerging leaders in data storage, we spoke recently with Denise Shiffman, vice president of marketing at Sun Network Storage, a division of Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW)

TMF: For investors who are new to enterprise data storage, could you give us a brief rundown of what's driving this industry right now and why it's such a hot sector?

Denise Shiffman: Sure. Over the past few years, as the Internet has sort of exploded on the scene, we saw a similar data explosion occur. The Web was actually creating a lot more data. It's also causing customers to install more and more applications, like customer management applications, in order to reuse that data to the value of the company. That's probably where the greatest data explosion has occurred.

Also, email. Email has finally evolved beyond just the Unix environment, which has been using email for the past ten to fifteen years.

TMF: What is Sun Microsystem's role in data storage?

Shiffman: The storage industry is actually quite a broad industry. There are three storage categories: The mainframe-style storage, which is really what it sounds like -- very high-end, very expensive, everything integrated inside -- designed for the traditional data center. That's a place where a company like EMC (NYSE: EMC) started its business and really focuses.

There's also PC storage, where there is really no intellectual property in the storage, and where the vendors are taking as inexpensive components as possible and providing the lowest possible cost, and that's where Dell (Nasdaq: DELL) is really focused.

The third category for storage is open-network storage. This is essentially the promise of the future; taking storage area networks (SANs) to a more open environment, much like the Internet, where customers can create the storage networks that scale infinitely, and are very, very easily managed. So that allows them to put their data on the network.

This is where Sun is really focused in terms of our products, our technologies, our services, and our vision of the future.

TMF: Who do you see as your biggest competitor in this area?

Shiffman: We see Compaq (NYSE: CPQ), which is also focused on trying to provide the more open storage networks, and Network Appliance (Nasdaq: NTAP) probably also fits better into this category than the other categories. The issue with what Net App's strategy currently is and the products they have is they are integrated appliances, so they're each a single node on the network with an existing file system on each one, and they're really not moving their services, their storage software as services, on to the network. That's really where we need to get.

TMF: What are your customers asking from you right now, what are their biggest needs and concerns?

Shiffman: They need to stretch their storage dollar farther so they can manage all this data they're getting, and so they can implement more applications using the data and be more competitive in their own environment. And they also want a real reduction in the complexity in managing storage. It's a highly complex environment today and they really need that to be simplified so their systems administrators can be more focused on the architecture of their environment, implementing new applications versus basically fighting fires all day in managing the network.

TMF: How does network-attached storage (NAS) fit into Sun's storage solutions?

Shiffman: We have products and solutions and technologies in SANs, a full family of NAS products, and we continue to provide direct-attached solutions that scale very well. We see all of these products and technologies converging. The industry's been talking a lot about convergence over the past three or four months, where -- I don't want to get too technical here, but -- NAS is really file-based storage, while SAN is SCSI-block-based. The talk has focused around being able to combine those two different ways to read and write your data on one network protocol. That could either be Fibre Channel or IP. And we are headed in that direction also.

TMF: What percentage of Sun Microsystem's revenues are currently attributed to Sun Storage?

Shiffman: We don't actually break down the different product lines at Sun.

TMF: Who or what do you see as the greatest threat to your presence in this field?

Shiffman: Right now, the greatest issue we're all facing is the economic slowdown. I believe that Sun is very well-positioned with a very strong strategy and strong foundation of products and technologies on the market, so when the economy comes back, we can take very good advantage of it.

TMF: For investors who are looking to get into the data storage market, what should they get excited about concerning Sun's solutions?

Shiffman: One of the things we haven't talked about, which is incredibly important to customers, is having an end-to-end solution. Storage and server networks are fairly complex. They [customers] really want one throat to choke. We can provide a value proposition that a storage-only vendor cannot, and that's the end-to-end systems solution and the end-to-end services. And we're working toward being able to provide an end-to-end service level. In other words, a commitment or guarantee of the service level that the network will provide the customer.

TMF: Finally, do you have a pick for the NCAA basketball tournament?

Shiffman: Oh, gosh. I'm embarrassed -- I don't follow basketball.

TMF: I understand. Thanks so much for your time.

Shiffman: Thank you.

Vince Hanks has storage problems of his own, but mostly due to a small apartment. He does not own Sun Microsystems or any of the other companies mentioned in this column. To see the stocks he owns, view his profile. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors