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

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

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."

Others agreed. "If the court rules for NetApp, Sun's reputable partners would be the most hurt by the decision," said Andrew Reichman, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "If Apple made a big investment in ZFS and decided that it's the future of their storage plans, they stand to lose quite a bit."

Because Sun donated the ZFS code to the open-source community in April, the dispute between NetApp and Sun could end up as a major test case for open-source software, according to storage analysts. "It could be a huge watershed case," Reichman said.

"Sun seemed to be trying to take its own intellectual property and put it in the open-source realm, then let it grow there and produce fruit for it and others," said Illuminata's Webster. "But NetApp says, 'Wait a minute, that may not be your intellectual property.'"

Apple's part could come after the case is decided, assuming NetApp won, said Reichman. "The [ZFS] code is already out there [in the open-source community], so if NetApp won, who would it go after?" Maybe not just Sun. "Companies like Apple, they're the ones NetApp could easily find" exploiting ZFS and making money from the technology, he added.

Even if Apple isn't directly involved, the uncertainty of the lawsuit could present problems. It's not unheard of for an intellectual property to last half a decade or more. "This could drag out for a long time," said Mike Karp, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates.

"And what's Apple supposed to do in the meantime?" asked Reichman.

Apple did not respond to questions about how NetApp's lawsuit might affect its plans for ZFS. NetApp declined to comment on what action, if any, it might take against companies such as Apple that are using Sun's ZFS technology.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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