Storage Wars: Sun Microsystems vs. Network Appliance

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 |  Includes: JAVA, NTAP
by: Yankee Group

By Carl Howe

Tom Yager over at InfoWorld claimed yesterday that ZFS is close to perfect. Frankly, I like it too, especially because it offers both a simpler and more powerful foundation for storing information on everything from desktops to high-end servers.

But some aren't as convinced; apparently Network Appliance (NASDAQ:NTAP) is suing Sun Microsystems (JAVA), claiming that the open source ZFS software infringes upon patents they own. But there's more to the story here. Why? Because many elements of Sun's technology are also in NetApp's products (the Network File System, being a notable example) and widespread adoption of ZFS might also make NetApp's storage systems increasingly irrelevant. Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz has responded, noting that it has just as much interest in protecting intellectual property, noting that Sun is indemnifying its customers and its developers on this point. And just to make things interesting, Schwartz plans to file a reciprocal suit to enjoin NetApp from selling any of its products -- permanently. Oh, he's looking for financial damages too. Touche.

This battle is about more than storage. It's about whether the commercial interests and patent portfolios of corporations in markets should trump community and open source development interests, who may or may not have legal resources to defend their intellectual property. We've seen similar battles between Microsoft and Linux vendors and SCO versus IBM, and to date, frankly, the open source folks have been winning most of the battles when and if they get to court. The only problem: it can take years and millions of dollars in legal fees for them to do so.

Kudos to Sun for fighting to allow nearly any technology vendor, including Apple, to use its "near-perfect" ZFS technology. Just as New York's public Central Park makes all the private property around it more valuable, public open source communities and foundational software only enrich innovation and the markets for new products. Further, the more NetApp tightens its grip on its patent portfolio, the more free Sun ZFS systems will slip through its fingers. Good luck Jonathan Schwartz; may the open source be with you.

UPDATE: NetApp's David Hitz has a rebuttal point of view that you can read here. And to be fair to them, they don't seem to be angling for world domination through patent portfolios, contrary to Jonathan's assertions. However, at the end of the day, I stand by my assertion that all companies including NetApp would benefit from ZFS being widely deployed and accepted; ZFS being available is not going to replace or diminish NetApp's existing WAFL base. It would be far better if the two companies settled the dispute out of court. Let's hope they do.

Full disclosure: At the time of writing, the author has no positions in Sun, NetApp, or any open source software company. He does own Apple stock, and Apple is using ZFS in its new operating systems.