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NetApp sues Sun over ZFS claims

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Network Appliance is suing Sun Microsystems in an intellectual property spat over - you guessed it - file systems.

The company seeks to halt Sun's sales and development of ZFS technology and asks for unspecified damages. NetApp filed the complaint in US district court in Texas.

In a conference call today, NetApp veep Dave Hitz wove a doleful tale:

Eighteen months ago Sun's lawyers contacted the company with a list of patents that NetApp had allegedly violated. Sun called on NetApp make good on the violations by signing a licensing agreement with Sun and "pay them lots of money", Hitz said.

NetAppexamined the claims and concluded it does not infringe Sun's intellectual property, and the patents themselves are invalid. Furthermore, NetApp shot back with claims that Sun's ZFS file system infringes seven of NetApp's WAFL (Write Anywhere File Layout)patents.

From Hitz' NetApp blog:

We filed suit against Sun because after we pointed out the WAFL patents, their lawyers stopped getting back to us. The first part of our suit is a declaratory judgment. It's complicated, but the basic idea is that Sun claims we infringe their patents, so we are requesting a trial to show that's not true. In essence, a declaratory judgment calls their bluff. It allows us to force a legal conclusion rather than leaving this threat hanging over our heads. The second part is a complaint against Sun for infringing on several WAFL patents with ZFS.

NetApp was further nettled when Sun took the file system open source.

According to the complaint, patents in question include techniques for snapshot, error correction, software RAID, and file system image transfer. A copy of the lawsuit can be obtained here (PDF warning).

NetApp insists that the lawsuit will not affect existing compatibility and agreements between the two vendors — including ZFS filesystems that use NetApp storage. But since Sun has made ZFS a major push for the company, it's easy to imagine serious damage if the injunction is enforced. Also, other companies such as Apple have adopted ZFS, so the effects could reach far beyond just the two companies.

Sun was not available for comment at time of writing. Sun has responded scathingly to the allegations. (See update).

NetApp is taking an interesting approach to the lawsuit, claiming hesitancy to take it to court and a no-hard-feelings approach.

"NetApp made major efforts to resolve these issues amicably. Unfortunately, Sun shifted from an aggressive position to not being responsive, leaving important issues unresolved," the company said in a statement. "To remove any doubts, NetApp has turned to the courts."

But at the same time, there is little hope of reeling in ZFS after it has gone open source. The cat has been let out of the bag, and what's left is an attack on Sun.

"NetApp certainly doesn’t believe that we can somehow erase every copy of ZFS that has been downloaded. (Impossible!)," writes Hitz in his blog. "This lawsuit isn’t about downloads for personal or non-commercial use; it is about what Sun is doing." ®

Update

Sun has released a statement in response to the lawsuit:

NetApp's legal attack against Sun's open source ZFS solution which is freely available in the marketplace is a clear indication that NetApp considers Sun technology a threat, and is a direct attack on the open source community. ZFS is the fastest growing storage virtualization technology in the marketplace, and NetApp's attempt to use patent litigation to inhibit the meteoric rise of open source technologies like ZFS is tantamount to being unhappy with gravity. As Sun knows well, and NetApps' customers obviously recognize, innovation works better than litigation.

Many of the claims raised in the lawsuit are factually untrue. For example, it was NetApp who first approached Sun seeking to acquire the Sun patents NetApp is now attempting to invalidate. It is unfortunate that NetApp has now resorted to resolving its business issues in a legal jurisdiction (East Texas) long favored by ‘patent trolls.'

Bottom line, Sun indemnifies its customers, and stands behind the innovations we deliver to the marketplace.

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