Sybase sues database start-up in east Texas court

Microsoft acquiree Datallegro Inc. isn’t the only data warehousing start-up being accused of patent infringement.

Sybase Inc. is quietly suing analytic database maker Vertica Systems Inc. for allegedly infringing the former’s patents in the suddenly trendy area of vertical, or column-oriented, databases. Sybase’s lawsuit was filed almost eight months ago, on Jan. 30, in U.S. District Court in Tyler, Texas.

A trial date has been set for June 7, 2010, according to a Sybase spokeswoman, who declined to answer other questions about the lawsuit, including why the Dublin, Calif.-based company chose the Texas court as the location for suing Andover, Mass.-based Vertica.

The Tyler courthouse is the main office for the Eastern District of Texas, which is viewed as a favorable venue for patent suits. For instance, according to data cited in a 2006 Technology Reviewarticle headlined “A Haven for Patent Pirates,” plaintiffs prevail in patent lawsuits that go to trial in the district’s Marshall courthouse 88% of the time, vs. 68% nationwide.

Patent cases also tend to be decided or settled more quickly in east Texas than they do elsewhere. In fact, the informational page on the court’s Web site for U.S. District Judge Leonard Davis, who is presiding over Sybase’s suit, says that one of his three goals is “to be timely in deciding the matters that come before the court.”

Davis hears cases in both Tyler and Marshall, according to the Web site. In one case decided in 2006, he slapped Microsoft Corp. with $25 million in “enhanced damages” on top of $115 million that the software vendor was ordered to pay z4 Technologies Inc., a small Michigan-based company that had sued Microsoft and Autodesk Inc. for patent infringement. Davis said that the additional damages were for “litigation misconduct” by Microsoft.

Other plaintiffs in pending high-tech patent lawsuits filed in east Texas include Intel Corp., Freescale Semiconductor Inc. and Konami Digital Entertainment Co., while large vendors facing suits there include Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc.

According to independent database analyst Curt Monash, who mentioned Sybase’s suit in a blog post earlier this month, the patents in question appear to be ones issued to the software vendor in the late 1990s. The first, patent number 5794229, is for technology that supports “storing a database table by vertically partitioning all columns of the table,” while the second, number 5918225, is for a “SQL-based database system with improved indexing methodology.”

Sybase pioneered the vertical database market with its Sybase IQ analytics server. Vertical databases store data in tables by column, rather than by row. That tends to put similar numerical data closer together, speeding up read times. Although not important for highly transactional databases in which data is equally read and written, it can be a big plus for data warehouses, in which data tends to be written once to disk and then read numerous times.

Sybase IQ has hundreds of users, including the Internal Revenue Service, which runs a 150TB data warehouse based on the Sybase technology to help it catch tax cheats. License revenue for Sybase IQ grew more than 50% year-over-year in the second quarter, Sybase CEO John Chen said during a conference call last month.

But vertical databases only started attracting widespread notice several years ago as super-large data warehouses began to emerge, such as a 2-petabyte data warehouse that Yahoo Inc. uses to analyze online advertising data. Yahoo’s mostly custom-built system is based on the PostgreSQL open-source database.

Besides Vertica, other start-ups that are focusing on ultra-large, ultra-fast business intelligence technologies include companies such as ParAccel, InfoBright and Exasol, among others. However, Vertica has had the highest profile by virtue of the fact that it has obtained the most venture capital backing — $23.5 million — and that it has the best-known founder: relational database pioneer Michael Stonebraker.

Stonebraker, who played a lead role in creating PostgreSQL as well as the Ingres database, has openly dismissed his past inventions and other relational technologies. In a blog post last fall, Stonebraker declared that column-based databases made their relational counterparts “long in the tooth” and said that relational software “should be considered legacy technology.”

Andrew Ellicott, senior marketing director at Vertica, said Monday that officials at the company don’t think Sybase’s suit has any merit. “There is a lot of prior art out there,” Ellicott said, adding that Vertica’s technology comes from an MIT research project called C-Store that Stonebraker and the company’s other technical founders were involved in.

Ellicott declined to comment on Sybase’s choice of venue for the lawsuit. He said the two vendors have exchanged documents via their lawyers but haven’t done any negotiating in advance of the first hearing in the case, which is scheduled for November 2009.

Last month, Mozilla Corp., developer of the Firefox Web browser, said it is deploying Vertica’s software for an internal data warehouse. Other customers that Vertica has signed on since the lawsuit was filed include Comcast Communications Inc., Vonage Inc. and Level 3 Communications Inc., according to Ellicott. He said the company has 50 paying customers total.

The suit by normally mild-mannered Sybase could be related to a battle earlier this year against a Wall Street hedge fund that had been pressuring the software vendor to boost its sales and stock price — or split itself up. Sybase negotiated a truce with the hedge fund, Sandell Asset Management, in mid-February. The company’s stock price has risen to higher levels in the past month than it had been for at least a decade, peaking at $36.99 on Aug. 14.

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