About a month ago, Network Appliance sued Sun to try to stop the competitive impact of ZFS on their business.
I can understand why they’re upset – when Linux first came on the scene in Sun’s core market, there were some here who responded the same way, asking “who can we sue?” But seeing the future, we didn’t file an injunction to stop competition – instead, we joined the free software community and innovated.
One of the ways we innovated was to create a magical file system called ZFS – which enables expensive, proprietary storage to be replaced with commodity disks and general purpose servers. Customers save a ton of money – and administrators save a ton of time. The economic impact is staggering – and understandably threatening to Net App and other proprietary companies. As is all free innovation, at some level.
So last week, I reached out to their CEO to see how we could avoid litigation. I have no interest whatever in suing them. None whatever.
Their objectives were clear – number one, they’d like us to unfree ZFS, to retract it from the free software community. Which reflects a common misconception among proprietary companies – that you can unfree, free. You cannot.
Second, they want us to limit ZFS’s allowable field of use to computers – and to forbid its use in storage devices. Which is quizzical to say the least – in our view, computers are storage devices, and vice versa (in the picture on the right – where’s the storage? Answer: everywhere). So that, too, is an impractical solution.
We’re left with the following: we’re unwilling to retract innovation from the free software community, and we can’t tolerate an encumbrance that limits ZFS’s value – to our customers, the community at large, or Sun’s shareholders.
So now it looks like we can’t avoid responding to their litigation, as frustrated as I am by that (as I said, we have zero interest in suing them). I wanted to outline our response (even if it tips off the folks at Net App), and for everyone to know where we’re headed.
First, the basics. Sun indemnifies all its customers against IP claims like this. That is, we’ve always protected our markets from trolls, so customers can continue to use ZFS without concern for spurious patent and copyright issues. We stand behind our innovation, and our customers.
Second, Sun protects the communities using our technologies under free software licenses. As an example, Apple is including ZFS is in their upcoming “Leopard” OS X release. This is happening without any payment to Sun (that’s how truly free software works). Under the license, we’ve waived all rights to sue them for any of the patents or copyright associated with ZFS. We’ve let Apple know we will use our patent portfolio to protect them and the Mac ZFS community from Net App. With or without a commercial relationship to Sun.
That’s true for any licensee – in fact, Net App could adopt ZFS today and receive the same protection. The port is done to FreeBSD, the OS on which Net App’s filers are built. They could use it without owing us a dime, and they’d be protected from our portfolio. (The quid pro quo? They’d have to agree to offer reciprocal protection to Sun.)
Third, we file patents defensively. Like MySQL or Red Hat, companies similarly competing in the free software marketplace, we file patents to protect the communities from which innovation and opportunity spring. Unlike smaller free software companies, we have one of the largest patent arsenals on the internet, numbering more than 14,000 issued and pending globally. Our portfolio touches nearly every aspect of network computing, from multi-core silicon and opto-electronics, to search and of course, a huge array of patents across storage systems and software – to which Network Appliance has decided to expose themselves.
And to be clear, once again, we have no interest whatever in suing NetApps – we didn’t before this case, and we don’t now. But given the impracticality of what they’re seeking as resolution, to take back an innovation that helps their customers as much as ours, we have no choice but to respond in court.
So later this week, we’re going to use our defensive portfolio to respond to Network Appliance, filing a comprehensive reciprocal suit. As a part of this suit, we are requesting a permanent injunction to remove all of their filer products from the marketplace, and are examining the original NFS license – on which Network Appliance was started. By opting to litigate vs. innovate, they are disrupting their customers and employees across the world.
In addition to seeking the removal of their products from the marketplace, we will be going after sizable monetary damages. And I am committing that Sun will donate half of those proceeds to the leading institutions promoting free software and patent reform (in specific, The Software Freedom Law Center and the Peer to Patent initiative), and to the legal defense of free software innovators. We will continue to fund the aggressive reexamination of spurious patents used against the community (which we’ve been doing behind the scenes on behalf of several open source innovators). Whatever’s left over will fuel a venture fund fostering innovation in the free software community.
And on that note, I want to thank the free software advocates from across the world who’ve offered expert testimony, and reams of prior art to defend ZFS, and the community of which Sun’s a part. Please rest assured we will use this opportunity to highlight the futility of using software patents to forestall competition – in the commercial marketplace, and among the free community.
In the interim, if you’re a Net App customer looking for alternatives, we would be pleased to talk to you about lowering the cost of proprietary storage – if you’re a technical sort, start by trying out ZFS in software form. (There are also lots of reviews available, this one just posted). We’d also be happy to send you a free trial Storage System based on ZFS (pick the x4500 here). And remember, we indemnify our customers.
The shift to commodity infrastructure is as inevitable as the rising tide – although for some, I’m sure it feels like a rogue wave.