NetApp Says Sun Reckless To Fight It Over Patents


Calling Sun Microsystems "reckless" for aggressively pursuing Network Appliance over patent disputes related to file system technology, NetApp on Wednesday said it filed a lawsuit seeking damages and an injunction related to Sun's ZFS file system.

The move could impact other vendors who use Open Source software, including Apple Computer.

Sun started talking to NetApp about 18 months ago about licensing its ZFS file system, saying NetApp violated three of its patents, and requested NetApp to sign a cross-licensing agreement and pay for its technology, said Dan Warmenhoven, CEO of NetApp, in a press call on Wednesday morning.

Several months later, NetApp responded, telling Sun that not only did NetApp not infringe on those three patents, Sun itself infringed on seven NetApp patents related to its WAFL (Write Anywhere File Layout) technology.

After that, Sun released its ZFS technology to the Open Source community, despite the unresolved intellectual property discussions, Warmenhoven said. "I think it was reckless," he said.

WAFL is a file system designed specifically to work in an NFS appliance. NFS, or Network File System, is a technology developed in 1984 for allowing a user on a client computer to access files over a network as if the client computer were directly attached the network devices.

WAFL is the technology on which Sun builds its NAS appliances. It includes data snapshot capabilities with the ability to quickly recover files that were deleted. WAFL uses a copy-on-write technique to minimize the disk space that snapshots consume, and uses snapshots to eliminate the need for file system consistency checking after an unclean shutdown.

ZFS, based on technology that Sun received in its acquisition of StorageTek two years ago, is the basis of its new StorageTek Virtual Tape Library Value System, or VTL Value, which was built on the new Sun Fire X4500 "Thumper" server. VTL Value was unveiled last month.

In addition to protecting its intellectual property, NetApp also wants to shut down Sun's ability to take ZFS into the Open Source community. ZFS has been ported to OS X and FreeBSD, and there is a Fuse port of ZFS for Linux, which means that companies such as Apple Computer, which have adopted such technology, could be impacted if the injunction is carried out.

"We'd like to see [Sun] stop developing ZFS technology, stop distributing it, and stop encouraging others to do it," Warmenhoven said. "Sun put it in Open Source. So in effect they are encouraging other people to use it."

However, said Warmenhoven, NetApp does not plan to pursue companies and customers who are using the ZFS technology. "We have no intent of trying to assert our claims against our customers or Sun customers," he said. "This is between Sun and us."

Dave Hitz, founder and executive vice president of NetApp, said that his company realizes that once code has been released to Open Source, it is impossible to take it back. Therefore, he said, NetApp wants to ensure that Sun stops all development on ZFS and stops releasing it.

NetApp is determined to see its lawsuit against Sun through to the finish, Warmenhoven said. "Sun would have to withdraw ZFS (to end the lawsuit), and I don't think it would happen," he said.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court in Lufkin, Texas, a court that Warmenhoven said is known for its intellectual property experience and its ability to quickly resolve such cases. He said he expects the case to last for as long as 18 months.

As of press time, Sun was still trying to provide executives to discuss the lawsuit.

Fahmida Rashid contributed to this story.