Network Appliance sues Sun over ZFS technology

Network Appliance on Wednesday said it has responded to allegations from Sun that it infringes on its intellectual property by suing Sun and seeking an injunction against the sale of its latest file system.

The lawsuit, which was filed in a district U.S. court this week, alleges Sun was the one who violated intellectual property, including the technology behind Network Appliance’s Write Anywhere File Layout (WAFL) and RAID subsystem. Network Appliance (NetApp) is also seeking unspecified damages over the seven patents it says Sun has violated.

Sun launched its Zettabyte File System (ZFS) two years ago as part of its OpenSolaris operating system strategy. The technology, like NetApp’s WAFL, is designed to eliminate the partitions of data on hard drives or a series of drives. Instead of separating layers for RAID, logical volume management and file systems, for example, it creates a single layer for system administrators.

NetApp CEO Dan Warmenhoven said in a conference call that Sun approached the company about 18 months ago with its accusations, and that talks to resolve the issue fell apart after Sun executives did not return phone calls.

“For a long time we tried to resolve this situation amicably,” he said. “They made aggressive demands that we licence some of their IP. That forced us to examine carefully if we had infringed on their intellectual property or if they had, in fact, infringed upon ours.”

A statement from Sun Microsystems obtained by ComputerWorld Canada said NetApp’s legal attack was a sign it considers ZFS a threat to its own product line.

“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,” the statement said. “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.”

Dave Hitz, NetApp’s founder and executive vice-president, said ZFS uses the same approach to data integrity, disk assimilation and file system transfer as WAFL, among other things.

“Sun’s actions have been neither fair nor responsible.” In Canada, NetApp’s WAFL enjoys a large following among enterprise customers, said Scott Wrangler, president of Calgary-based Zentra, which helps implement the technology. “It’s the mainstay of our business,” he said.

Warmenhoven said NetApp has posted a blog entry on its site with detailed explanations of the alleged patent violations, as well as information in the suit itself. He said the case should not stop either company from supporting its customers, although he acknowledged an injunction, if it happens, would affect Sun users.

“We have no intention of trying to assert claims against Sun customers,” he said, adding the company wants to avoid the kind of uncertainty raised around Linux during SCO’s prosecution of IBM and other open source companies. “There obviously are questions about the future of ZFS, but those are way out in the future before they’re resolved.”

Wrangler said he doesn’t expect many WAFL users had moved over to ZFS yet anyway.

“I think there’s always been an element of competition,” he said, adding that Zentra typically doesn’t recommend anything other than WAFL to enterprise customers. “The NetApp technology is just so incredibly stable. It’s quite good.”

ZFS has been getting good reviews from industry experts and was rumoured to be the new file system for Apple’s latest Max OS X. Sun has also reached out to Linux creator Linus Torvalds about offering ZFS through the GPL.