Monday Oct 06, 2008

Just one more thing.

I promise, I do have other subjects to write about; however, immediately after my last blog we received some additional news of interest concerning the NetApp litigation.

After NetApp filed its lawsuit to halt adoption of Sun's open source ZFS technology, we responded by filing reexamination requests with the PTO citing the extensive amount of highly relevant prior art that was not disclosed or considered when NetApp originally filed its patents. The patent office clearly agreed with the relevance of this prior art, as demonstrated by its rejection of the claims across all of the reexaminations. Of these patents, three have been described by NetApp as "core" (US Patent Nos. 6,857,001; 6,892,211; and 5,819,292). Here's the current status of each of them:

NetApp Patent No. 6,857,001 - The PTO rejected all 63 claims of the patent based on 10 prior art references provided by Sun. In addition, the trial court has agreed to remove that patent from the litigation for now pending the final reexamination by the PTO.

NetApp Patent No. 6,892,211 - The PTO rejected all 24 claims of the patent based on 12 prior art references provided by Sun. There is currently a request pending before the trial judge to stay this patent from the litigation as well.

NetApp Patent No. 5,819,292 - And late last week, we were informed that the PTO has rejected all of the asserted claims of this patent relying on at least two separate prior art references out of the many provided by Sun. (The examiner felt that to consider the other references would be "redundant".)

Some may recall that the '292 ("WAFL" technology) patent was what NetApp's founder, David Hitz, originally highlighted on his blog as being innovative and infringed by ZFS. However, what this litigation is proving is what we have known all along - ZFS is a fundamentally different, game changing technology.

It's the same thing we hear from our customers.

Thursday Oct 02, 2008

More on the NetApp litigation

I recently read Judge Laporte's Order Construing Claims in the NetApp v. Sun litigation. Judge Laporte is the United States Magistrate Judge who is hearing this case in the Federal Court for the Northern District of California. Reading the order was again a reminder of the breadth and diversity of cases that judges are called to consider. These include everything from antitrust, personal injury and employment lawsuits, to cases involving conflicts over ERISA and some even more unique disputes.

Which makes it all the more impressive when a judge is also able to understand and render a decision relating to highly complex technologies in a patent case as part of a Markman hearing. For those who don't practice in this area, a Markman hearing (taking its name from the case of Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc.) is a pre-trial procedure in which each party presents briefs, tutorials and expert witness testimony to establish the meaning of key terms in disputed patents. Aside from the actual trial, the Markman hearing is the most important part of a patent infringement litigation.

On August 27, 2008, the Markman hearing was held before Judge Laporte. In dispute were fourteen phrases in seven patents (four asserted by Sun and three by NetApp) that required the court to determine the meaning of terms like "Domain Name", "Non-volatile Storage Means" and "Root Inode", among others. Given the complexity, we were impressed when only two weeks later, the judge issued her order.

And, we were very pleased.

In summary, the court agreed with Sun's interpretation on six of the disputed terms (two of which the court adopted with slight modification) and with NetApp on one. As to the remaining terms, the court either formulated its own interpretation or requested that the parties propose a further construction (i.e. definition). If you want to read the Order from the Markman hearing you can find it here.

Most significantly, the Court found each of the asserted claims in NetApp's 7,200,715 patent relating to RAID technology to be "indefinite" - meaning that someone with experience in this area of technology could not understand the limits of the claimed invention. With regard to NetApp's '715 patent, the court agreed with Sun's position that the claims of the patent are flatly inconsistent with and impossible under the teaching of the patent specification. In effect, unless NetApp appeals and this finding is reversed, the '715 patent is effectively invalidated in this case and against others in the future.

In addition, the Court's findings on the terms "server identification data", "domain name", "portion of a communication" "element of a communication" and "completing a write operation within a local processing node" further strengthen our position that the processors, network interface and systems management software used across NetApp's product line infringe Sun's patents.

Meanwhile ZFS and OpenStorage continue to gain momentum.

Thursday Jun 26, 2008

NetApp Litigation - an update

Over the last few months, I've had many requests for an update on the litigation between Sun and NetApp. There is clearly quite a bit of interest in the case in the media. Developers are curious whether NetApp will be successful in hindering even greater adoption of Sun's ZFS open source technology. (Nice to see Apple supporting ZFS.) And, I'm sure NetApp customers are interested in understanding the impact of the 22 patents Sun has asserted in response against NetApp's product line. So, here's a summary of where we are.

After NetApp sued Sun, we responded with six reexamination requests on the patents asserted by NetApp. Reexamination is a procedure in which a party submits documents (prior art) relating to a patent to the US Patent Office (PTO) and asks that it reconsider whether that patent should have ever been issued. If the PTO agrees and determines there is a “substantial new question of patentability" (SNQP) it will grant the request and reopen the patent examination process on that patent. Included in our requests was a significant amount of highly relevant prior art that was not considered by the PTO when it first granted the NetApp patents. (By the way, to those of you who submitted prior art - "thank you!”)

Over the last two months, the PTO has granted the first five of our reexamination requests, finding in all the cases that multiple “SNQP” exist for each patent (one request filed in June is still pending). These include, among others, US Patent Nos. 5,819,292; 6,857,001 and 6,892,211, "core patents" according to NetApp. With regard to one NetApp patent, the ‘001 patent, the PTO has issued a first action rejecting all the claims of this patent. Based on the positive response we received from the PTO, we asked the trial court to stay a portion of the litigation. Obviously, it doesn't make sense to go through the expense and time of litigating a patent in court if the PTO is likely to find it invalid. The court agreed with our request and at least one NetApp patent has thus far been removed from the litigation. We expect to hear more from the PTO on the remaining reexaminations over the course of the year.

In our defense, we have asserted a total of 22 patents covering technology ranging from microprocessors to file system management. The NetApp products accused of infringing Sun patents include FAS6000,FAS9000, FAS3000, FAS2000, V3000, V6000filers, MetroCluster, SnapMirror, SyncMirror, SnapVault, FlexVol, FlexClone, R200 Platform, NearStore Virtual Tape Library, and FAS platforms with SATA drives. Even the recently acquired Onaro products are also subject to claims of infringement of the Sun patents-in-suit. Of note, none of the patents being advanced by Sun in the original case has been challenged by NetApp in the PTO.

A settlement conference was held yesterday before Judge Spero in the Northern District of California. And, it was rather brief. While we entered into the process with a willingness to engage in constructive discussion with NetApp, unfortunately, we weren't able to resolve the dispute.

Why? It wasn't for lack of effort. Instead, it's because our two companies have very divergent views on the future of computing. It has become increasingly clear, that although NetApp originally claimed this case to be about Sun's alleged patent infringement (an assertion which we are confident we will prove was unfounded), the case is about something else entirely. It's really about the clash between two different business models, one proprietary, the other open. NetApp admits as much in a declaration of Dave Hitz (a document recently unsealed by the court). It is this difference that is the source of the litigation. And, as more of the world moves away from proprietary models, I expect to see other litigations arise between companies in this area.

To be clear, Sun = FOSS. We have transformed our company and aligned it around the belief that giving away our technology and investing in related communities will create greater adoption of our intellectual property and ultimately redound to the benefit of our shareholders, customers and the open source community. When it comes to Sun's commitment to open source - "the horse is out of the barn". Not only that, it's also had foals. And, their names are Sun Open Storage, OpenSolaris, MySQL, Glassfish, OpenJDK, OpenSparc and...

Monday Oct 29, 2007

The NetApp Litigation (continued)

Today, we filed a second complaint against NetApp for infringement of six additional patents and other related claims. Although it may appear a separate case, it is in reality, part of the same litigation originally brought by NetApp in Eastern Texas to impede the adoption of ZFS. There are many theories as to why NetApp chose this particular venue, but because they sued Sun in that location we were forced to respond there. And, that is what we did last Thursday.

The case we filed today is in the Northern District of California. While we dislike the fact that we are forced to litigate this matter at all, we believe California is a more appropriate forum for any dispute between Sun and NetApp. Why? For starters, our companies are headquartered less than 10 miles apart here in Silicon Valley. All of the key witnesses in this case are located here, as are our attorneys. The same for most of the documentary evidence. And, almost all of the technology in dispute was developed here as well.

So to us, it makes more sense in terms of efficiency and economy, that this case be litigated here. With this in mind, we will be bringing a motion before the court in California asking that the case filed in Texas be consolidated with the case filed by Sun today for trial here in the Bay Area. Bottom line, this move would be in the best interest of all parties involved...especially our respective shareholders. We hope that NetApp agrees.

Thursday Oct 25, 2007

The NetApp Litigation

The shift from “proprietary” to “open” business models continues to accelerate. Nowhere is this more apparent than with software. Sun went through this transition several years ago. It was a difficult undertaking (a serious understatement). However, we saw the direction of the industry and committed the company to the transformation. It's probably one of the most important and positive decisions we've ever made. Unfortunately, for some companies this same course remains unthinkable.

Last month, Network Appliance (NetApp) sued Sun alleging that Sun's ZFS technology infringed NetApp patents. Today we filed our response. A PDF copy can be found here.

We had no notice of NetApp's intent to bring this litigation and found it strange that they chose this course so unexpectedly. We were also surprised by NetApp's attempt to impede the adoption of ZFS. Obviously, they have business reasons why they believe they need to so so; however, ZFS was announced over three years ago. It has been in the open source community since November, 2005. So, why now?

We invest an enormous amount of money on innovation – on average 15% of revenue. As part of this, we also invest in various intellectual property protections for this innovation, including patents, copyrights and trademarks. This investment allows us the flexibility to protect ourselves and others. In this case, we intend to use our very broad and extensive patent portfolio to protect the open source community that has embraced ZFS and made it so successful.

I've previously shared my perspective on litigation. The points I made then apply equally to this case, including that a non-judicial resolution is always preferable. To this end, previous to filing our response, I spoke to my counterpart at NetApp. We had a very polite and engaged discussion about what lay ahead for both companies. However, in the end, we were not able to see a path to resolution.

We have reviewed the NetApp claims against ZFS and we believe them to be without merit. (To those of you who have already been sending us prior art - “thank you”. To those of you who would like to lend your support, please go here.)

In our response we address not only the case brought by NetApp, but we have also brought our own claims against the entirety of their product line and are seeking both damages and injunctive relief. It's a responsive action we take not because we want to, but rather because we are forced to. That said, we would like to use this litigation not only to protect, but to promote innovation as well. To this end, we have announced that we will be donating a portion of whatever Sun recovers to organizations supporting the open source community.

It is disappointing that we have to turn to litigation. But, it's clear that NetApp views the open source world much differently than Sun. We've made the transition – they can't contemplate it.

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