NetApp files suit to stop Sun's use of ZFS

By Kevin Komiega

—Network Appliance fired a shot across Sun Microsystems' bow today when the company announced it has filed suit in an attempt to prevent Sun from distributing and commercializing its Zettabyte File System (ZFS) technology.

The lawsuit, which was filed today in US District Court in Lufkin, TX, alleges that Sun's ZFS technology infringes on a number of NetApp patents. NetApp is seeking compensatory damages and a permanent injunction against Sun to prevent further distribution of the technology in current or future versions of Sun's data processing systems and related software.

Sun made ZFS freely available to the open source community last April when the company embedded its storage-related IP in the Solaris 10 operating system. Sun also made previously "Sun-only" administration features of ZFS available to the OpenSolaris community, including the ZFS Clone Promotion feature, which allows storage users to turn a clone back into the active file system, and the Recursive Snapshots feature, which automatically creates snapshots for all descendent file systems.

Sun's entire StorageTek virtual tape library (VTL) product family is also based on the Solaris OS and ZFS file system.

NetApp CEO Dan Warmenhoven says his company's decision to take legal action is a direct result of Sun's "aggressive demands" for royalties on their own intellectual property, demands which he says are unfounded.

"For a long time we tried to solve these issues amicably, but our calls to Sun were not returned. We waited patiently for a response, but to no avail," Warmenhoven said in a conference call with media and analysts. "To make sure the issue is resolved we have turned to the courts."

He claims Sun's aggressive posture prompted NetApp to take a closer look at whether they were in fact infringing on Sun's patents and whether Sun might also be infringing on NetApp's. As a result, NetApp has determined ZFS unfairly utilizes techniques found in the Write Anywhere File Layout (WAFL) file system.

"In many ways ZFS looks to use the same techniques for file system consistency and creating snapshots as WAFL does, among other issues," says Dave Hitz, founder and executive vice president at NetApp.

Hitz, who filed the WAFL patent himself in 1995, says NetApp has no intention of pursuing legal action against anyone in the open-source community who may have downloaded the software and is using it on a small scale, but commercializing the technology in question could put you on NetApp's radar screen.

"Right now this is between Sun and us. We're not objecting to individuals using it personally or institutions that are using it for research, but to the extent that they become competitive with NetApp we will do what's in our best interests," says Hitz. "We don't want to present issues for those who do business with us or with Sun and we don't expect [the lawsuit] will."

However, Enterprise Strategy Group founder and senior analyst Steve Duplessie says the impact of a NetApp victory could reverberate throughout the storage industry.

"If NetApp wins, not only could it be a huge blow to Sun, but they may have others who will have to play nice with them as well," Duplessie says. "I don't see a ton of downside in the decision to pursue this. The worst case is NetApp gets to elevate the attention around these features, and since they already have them all and are the market leader, it's sort of like an advertising campaign."

Sun representatives were not available for comment at press time.

This article was originally published on September 05, 2007