July 8, 2010 — A one-page legal letter from NetApp has sparked a debate over the use of open-source ZFS technology and put at least one storage startup in a bit of a bind.

Earlier this week, Coraid informed its customers that it has suspended sales of its recently announced EtherDrive Z-Series NAS appliances, which are based on ZFS. The decision was made after Coraid received a “legal threat letter” suggesting that the open-source ZFS file system planned for inclusion with the EtherDrive Z-Series infringes NetApp patents (see “NetApp threatens Coraid over sales of open-source ZFS technology”).

So why single out Coraid? The Z-Series NAS solution is based on Nexenta’s software, but, according to Nexenta, the company “has not at this time received communications yet from NetApp.”

Enterprise Strategy Group senior analyst Terri McClure wonders why NetApp didn’t hit Nexenta with the same letter since Nexenta supplies its ZFS software to multiple storage vendors.

“If NetApp did it would make sense – stop a number of vendors instead of just one. It certainly makes you wonder why they would single out Coraid, people could read into this that NetApp sees Coraid as a threat. Coraid’s NAS product is pretty new but the underlying platform has been on the market a while and is solid, at a really aggressive price point,” said McClure.

“[NetApp] just spent a couple of hundred dollars in lawyer’s fees and took a competitor out of the market. Quick and easy, but a little disappointing, too. At the end of the day, ZFS is open source, and while there is no way to predict how the settlement talks between Oracle and NetApp will turn out, you can’t really un-open source ZFS,” she said.

There’s still no word from NetApp on the matter.

Nexenta CEO Evan Powell supplied Enterprise Storage Forum with the following statement:

“I am not a patent law expert and cannot comment specifically on NetApp and Oracle’s legal battle. However, I find NetApp’s behaviour consistent with what typically transpires when established legacy technology companies are confronted with innovation that threatens their price structure and profit margins. The first protest that the technology is unproven and unstable, then it lacks enterprise features, then adequate support and services and finally, when all else has failed, that it is violating their intellectual property. This is the path that NetApp has taken in the last two years with the ZFS file system.

“Based on the explosive and sustained growth in adoption of Nexenta’s Open Storage software based on the ZFS file system, it is clear that our partners and customers are confident that this case will reach a settlement that follows the trajectory of almost every technology market in the last 15 years– low cost, high innovation and open solutions that provide a clear and competitive alternative to closed, proprietary and expensive technologies.”