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Apple's support for ZFS may drag it into open-source lawsuit

Sun/NetApp patent case could threaten Leopard's open-source experiment

October 5, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Apple Inc.'s upcoming Leopard will support the open-source Zettabyte File System (ZFS), the company confirmed today -- a move that could embroil it in a patent-infringement lawsuit between Sun Microsystems Inc. and storage software maker Network Appliance Inc. (NetApp).

Leopard, also known as Mac OS X 10.5, will include the file system, albeit in a small way. "Apple will provide limited ZFS support in Leopard," said company spokesman Anuj Nayar today. "It will only be available as a read-only option from the command line."

ZFS is a Sun-designed, 128-bit file-storage system that boasts storage pooling, fast data snapshots and copy on write. It's an advanced file system -- it can store 18 billion billion times more data than 64-bit systems, such as Microsoft's New Technology File System -- and has been touted by some Apple watchers as a perfect fit for a next-generation Time Machine, the backup feature slated for Leopard that will let users restore their Macintoshes to earlier conditions or reclaim previous versions of documents.

The file system was first linked to Apple in early June, when Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz said ZFS would be included with Leopard. Recently, however, talk of ZFS resurfaced. This week, for example, Apple enthusiast site AppleInsider cited unnamed sources who claimed that read-only support is just the beginning.

A build seeded to developers Wednesday, for instance, reportedly provided both read and write access to ZFS and included documentation in which Apple said it would handle the port of ZFS to the Mac operating system. The implication is that Leopard will be updated at some future date with full read/write ZFS capabilities.

Since the initial talk of Apple supporting ZFS, however, the Sun-designed file system has become the focus of a lawsuit filed by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based storage software developer NetApp against Sun. And that, say analysts, may drag Apple into the brouhaha.

On Sept. 5, NetApp filed papers with a Texas federal court that accused Sun's ZFS of infringing on seven of its patents. The suit also demanded a "permanent injunction enjoining Sun, its officers, agents, servants, employees, attorneys and those persons in concert or participation with any of them, from directly or indirectly infringing ... the patents, including the distribution of any current or future versions of ZFS."

That should have sent Apple straight to its own legal counsel, said John Webster, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. "If you're the Apple product manager trying to push that project forward, the first call you make is to your corporate attorney," said Webster. "You have to ask, 'What are the implications?' As Apple, you have to do your legal due diligence."



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