NetApp hits Sun with patent-infringement lawsuit

Seeks halt to development, distribution of Sun's ZFS file system

Network Appliance Inc. today announced that it has filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Sun Microsystems Inc. seeking unspecified compensatory damages and an injunction that would prohibit Sun from developing or distributing products based on its ZFS file system technology.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Lufkin, Texas, charges that the Sun ZFS technology infringes on seven NetApp patents pertaining to data processing systems and related software.

Dave Hitz, NetApps's founder and executive vice president, said the lawsuit was filed largely because Sun 18 months ago "aggressively demanded" cross-licensing fees related to the Write Anywhere File Layout (WAFL) file-system technology included in ZFS. Hitz said the cross-licensing talks were halted in April after Sun claimed that NetApp's use of WAFL infringed on Sun patents.

"Those discussions obviously went nowhere and basically fell silent," he said. "By that time, [the ZFS file system] was in the public domain. They started this discussion by asserting we infringed on their patents and asked us to pay them royalties on their patents." Earlier this year, Sun released  the ZFS source code, part of its Solaris operating system, to the open source community, Hitz noted.

Sun declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Hitz said that during its negotiations, Sun did not specify which NetApp products infringed on its patents. However, he noted that Sun did say that most of those patents were gained through its $4.1 billion acquisition of Storage Technology Corp. in 2005.

NetApp has no plans to assert any claims against its own customers or Sun's customers in regards to ZFS or other patent infringement. While Hitz acknowledged that the lawsuit could have implications for the future of ZFS, he declined to elaborate on specific outcomes.

Storage analysts said that a drawn-out legal battle would likely hurt Sun more than NetApp because of the importance of ZFS to Sun's core storage strategy. In addition, analysts pointed out that the case could set legal precedent involving the viability of open-source storage.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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