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Oracle and NetApp dismiss ZFS lawsuits

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NetApp and Oracle have agreed to dismiss their respective lawsuits against each other without prejudice. ZFS-using companies such as Coraid and Nexenta can now go ahead free of the threat of NetApp interference.

The dismissal terms between the two companies are confidential. NetApp CEO and president Tom Georgens said: "Moving forward, we will continue to collaborate with Oracle to deliver solutions that help our mutual customers gain greater flexibility and efficiency in their IT infrastructures."

The brouhaha started when NetApp sued Sun concerning ZFS, its Zettabyte File System, alleging that it infringed several NetApp patents. The suit was filed in September 2007, in Texas, three years ago, but the spat between the two started 18 months before that, according to NetApp, when Sun's lawyers contacted NetApp saying its products violated Sun patents, and requesting licensing agreements and royalties for the technologies concerned.

NetApp looked at Sun's complaint and decided it was without substance; the IP infringement claims were invalid. It responded with claims that Sun's ZFS infringed seven NetApp patents referring to WAFL, its Write Anywhere File Layout technology. Sun's lawyers apparently didn't respond to this, so NetApp went to court.

Sun, led by Jonathan Schwartz, responded to NetApp's suit and said it was an assault on Open Source software and, furthermore, NetApp first approached Sun, not the other way round, and wanted to acquire the patents that the NetApp suit attempted to invalidate.

Sun counter-sued in October 2007, in California, alleging that the NetApp patents it alleges Sun infringed were, in fact, invalid, and accusing NetApp of violating Sun patents. In April 2008, Sun added another IP infringement suit against NetApp, saying its Onaro SANscreen and NAS Insight software used Sun-patented technology.

Sun's tactic with the WAFL patents NetApp claimed Sun was infringing was to have them declared invalid because of prior art, pre-existing technology that was effectively the same as the supposedly unique WAFL technology being patented by NetApp. It claimed some successes with this tactic but NetApp remained confident in its case as the various lawsuits were combined into a single Califonia-court-based dispute between the two parties.

Then, in April 2009, Oracle bought Sun lock, stock, barrel and lawsuits. Oracle is well-known for fighting its IP corner and Larry Ellison, is CEO is no stranger to legal contests, for example, over such things as the America's Cup in sailing circles. What was going to happen?

A clue came in July this year when NetApp issued a threatening letter to Coraid, the minnow-like AoE Ethernet-based storage supplier saying it better stop selling its EtherDrive Z-series NAS product which used ZFS. Coraid complied but its ZFS supplier, Nexenta, did not get a similar letter, and nor did Compellent which uses Nexenta ZFS in its NAS head. GreenBytes, another ZFS user was also left off the NetApp lawyer writing list.

This letter indicated publicly that NetApp still felt confident in its case and was not about to cave in to Oracle.

The supposition now is that Compellent, Coraid, GreenBytes and Nexenta can go back to using ZFS without the threat of NetApp legal action. With the dismissal terms being kept private we don't know if money has flowed between Oracle and NetApp and, if so, in which direction.

Nor do we know if either company is licensing the other's technology. NetApp isn't saying it has won and nor is it saying it has lost. Oracle has so far said nothing publicly.

Perhaps Oracle has cleaned up its legal action list so it can concentrate on the HP lawsuit over its employment of ex-HP CEO Mark Hurd as a co-president? We don't think that's likely, as Oracle can easily afford to fight several legal actions simultaneously.

Whatever the reasons for the mutual agreement to dismiss the lawsuits, ZFS technology product users and end-users can feel relieved that a distracting lawsuit has been cleared away. ®

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