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NetApp, Sun suit leaves resellers tense over fate of ZFS file system

NetApp's patent lawsuit against Sun, targeting Sun's ZFS file management system, has caused resellers and analysts to contemplate several possible outcomes, including a settlement that might spur a working relationship between the two companies.

Partners and analysts are contemplating the ramifications of Network Appliance Inc.'s lawsuit against Sun Microsystems Inc., charging that Sun's Zetabyte File System (ZFS) file management system infringes on NetApp patents.

The Sun lawsuit charges that ZFS, which Sun acquired when it bought StorageTek in 2005, violates three NetApp patents. ZFS is a critical -- some analysts say irreplaceable -- part of Sun's storage strategy.

"This has huge implications, because ZFS is a pillar of Sun's storage strategy," said Mike Willard, principal partner at Dallas-based Sun reseller Soccour Solutions.

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"If NetApp won the case it would be a huge blow to Sun's overall roadmap moving forward. ZFS is one of the better features of the Solaris 10 software suite," Willard said.

ZFS is one of Sun's major advantages over NetApp, Willard added, which would magnify the problem a Sun lawsuit could have on its channel partners.

The dispute in the Sun lawsuit began 18 months ago, when Sun claimed that NetApp was infringing on Sun patents and asked NetApp to cross-license the technology and pay royalties as compensation.

NetApp counterattacked with a lawsuit against Sun, claiming that Sun's ZFS file management system incorporated much of NetApps' Write Anywhere File Layout (WAFL) file system.

Since acquiring it from StorageTek, Sun has improved the capacity and performance of ZFS. Sun then announced in April that it had donated the ZFS file management system to the OpenSolaris community. In June, Sun made the ZFS file management system available to the Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard operating system. ZFS has also been ported to FreeBSD.

Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz wrote a blog entry last week denying that Sun first accused NetApp of violating Sun patents or "filed complaints against NetApp or demanded anything."

On Friday, David Hitz, NetApp's founder and executive vice president, posted a letter on his blog, purportedly from Sun, demanding $36 million in royalties for violations of Sun's intellectual property within NetApp's own software.

"Hopefully, for our sake, the court will throw out this case," Willard said. "I'd be surprised if the two file systems were close enough to have grounds for a case."

Sun's storage practice has been limping along in recent times, according to analysts. Revenue for Sun's data storage systems dropped 10.4% during the most recent quarter, compared to a year ago.

"This is just another blow to them," said Keith Baskin, storage practice manager at Norcross, Ga.- based Sun reseller Optimus Solutions. "Sun keeps trying to get back on their feet and they keep getting slammed."

However, Baskin said, "I'm going to see how this plays out before I get worried."

It's not actually in either company's best interests to let the Sun lawsuit proceed, according to analysts such as John Webster at Illuminata Inc.

Cross-licensing agreements would not only settle the Sun lawsuit, they would make both companies stronger, Webster said.

"Right now storage overall for [Sun] is in negative growth territory, and they've got to turn that situation around," Webster said. "Can an agreement with NetApp help them do that? Personally I think it can. For NetApp there's the possibility of higher-level access to Sun's customer base."

However, Sun resellers will have to look at the contract language in their agreements with both Sun and their own customers to see whether they could be liable for reselling technology that may be found to have violated another company's patents, Webster said.

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