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NetApp/Sun lawsuit seen as open-source test case

Puts open sourcing of ZFS code under microscope, analysts say

By Brian Fonseca
September 5, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A patent infringement lawsuit filed by Network Appliance Inc. against Sun Microsystems Inc. on Wednesday could escalate beyond the storage arena to become this decade's major test case for open-source software, according to storage analysts.

NetApp contends that Sun's ZFS file system technology, which was donated to the open-source community earlier this year, infringes on seven NetApp patents.

Andrew Reichman, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., said NetApp's effort to stop Sun from developing or distributing the file system technology could catapult the sticky issue of open-source software ownership squarely onto the public stage.

"This will be a banner case to test the viability of open-source storage software, which Sun has been touting for some time," said Reichman. Sun, he added, is "too committed to the idea" of providing storage technology to users without charge via the open-source community -- a process that "the likes of NetApp and EMC are very hostile to." Those companies, Reichman said, fear that open-source storage technology would cut them off from significant sources of revenue.

"I think [the legal scuffle] will drag on for a long time and likely become the major test case for open-source software this decade," he said.

Reichman also noted that NetApp may have difficulty convincing a judge to force Sun to pay for using the patents, given what he called Sun's convoluted revenue stream from a system that provides users with some intellectual property without charge.

Mike Karp, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates in Boulder, Colo., said that the issues being raised by NetApp over ZFS in many ways mirror the legal battle between Novell Inc. and The SCO Group Inc. over Unix ownership.

"This is not the sort of thing that is likely to be resolved overnight. My guess is that this is going to be a very expensive suit for both sides to prosecute," said Karp. "Neither side can afford to lose this thing."

Given what he calls a fragmented approach by Sun toward its StorageTek technology and reseller relationships, Reichman said he perceives ZFS as the company's "make or break" storage technology. Whether by design or not, NetApp's lawsuit will likely distract Sun's fledgling storage effort, he added.

"[Sun] already has significant challenges in productizing ZFS-based storage offerings and emerging as a force in storage, and [the lawsuit] will only compound that," Reichman said.

Read more about Data Storage in Computerworld's Data Storage Topic Center.

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