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Patent lawsuit a lose-lose for NetApp, Sun

Patent lawsuit a lose-lose for NetApp, Sun

Law suits sparked by patent infringement claims are risky ventures. They hardly ever make either party look good, and they are anything but sure bets as revenue producers - unless you're an attorney. Therefore, when they do happen, those involved usually go out of their way to keep all but the essential facts of the case from public view. Not so with the current sue-me-sue-you spat between Network Appliance and Sun. Here we have Dave Hitz of NetApp and Jonathan Schwartz of Sun arguing their cases blogospherically and in conflicting detail.

I admit that I occasionally, surreptitiously check my email while intently engaged in someone else's PowerPoint presentation. And so that was my situation when, as an analyst attending a session for investors and analysts hosted by Sun Microsystems in NYC this week, I checked email shortly past noon on Wednesday and learned that Network Appliance was suing the very company standing in front of me. Sun's ZFS file system figured prominently in NetApp's complaint - essentially that Sun copied parts of ZFS from NetApp's WAFL file system. How serendipitous. My notes from this session are peppered with comments made by Sun executives, including Jonathan Schwarz, regarding the strategic importance of ZFS to Sun's Solaris-uber-alles strategy. What a novel way to send Jonathan a not-so-fast-there-buckaroo wake-up call, I thought.

And a wake-up call it indeed turned out to be. When an investor asked Jonathan later that day why NetApp was trying to kill off ZFS, his response was "Er... what?" He claims he was "totally stunned - it was the first I'd heard that Network Appliance was suing Sun."

It's clear to me that Jonathan is forging ahead no matter what with an open source strategy that plants Solaris, Java, and ZFS in a proverbial Field of Dreams where some of the fruits of Sun's technical prowess can be harvested for free by any and all who come. It's equally clear that Dave Hitz isn't going there with him, nor is he willing to let Jonathan plant what he perceives to be NetApp intellectual property anywhere close to that field.

So now we have a very public IP ownership dispute between two very major storage players. These disputes happen, no doubt, but rarely in public, and even more rarely in the blogosphere (in fact, this may be a first). That's good because private disputes are easier to settle - no macho egos to display and no turf to defend. Settlement is the best way forward for all involved in this case, including customers.

John Webster is the principal IT adviser for research firm Illuminata Inc. He is also the author of numerous articles and white papers on a wide range of topics and is the co-author of the book Inescapable Data: Harnessing the Power of Convergence (IBM Press, 2005). Webster can be reached at jwebster@illuminata.com.


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