My opinion on the Sun/NetApp altercation: Both companies should be grateful instead of resorting to lawsuits

Since opinions are like you-know-what, and since I’m decidedly anatomically complete in that respect (some, indeed, claim all of me is composed of implied anatomical part, so maybe that’s why I’m so opinionated), I thought I’d throw my $0.2 in the pot and not stay silent. The whole issue irks me quite a bit, actually.

Like my colleague, Rich, and I think most digerati (there’s a nice word whose time came and went, it seems), I have been following the machismo display between Sun and NetApp (see some representative comments from both sides here and here). BTW, I doubt anything will really happen with the lawsuits, and highly doubt even that money will change hands out-of-court to settle this. This is more about chest-thumping than anything else. But, in a nutshell, it seems it all started due to NetApp wanting to buy some STK patents (from before the STK acquisition), Sun not wanting to sell but instead asking for $36m to license the patents, NetApp being upset and telling Sun they infringe their WAFL patent with ZFS, then Sun telling NetApp to stop selling filers. Those guys are all nuts. I may be missing some facts (NetApp is super-cagey about what STK stuff they wanted) but they are all still nuts.

It seems people will try to patent anything these days. But going after people that you think infringed your patents can be pathetic if your story is not airtight and your goals noble – remember SCO?

I do believe in protecting one’s IP in some way – whether the best way is a patent I’m not so sure, there’s always copyright. I’m not as naïve as some open source zealots that think all patents are evil and that all software should be free. I wonder where they work and how they all make their living? Do those guys all work in places that only do open source and just give away stuff? If I develop a piece of truly cool IP that can result in me making money, rest assured I’ll try to capitalize on it.

However, I do believe that the current patent system is flawed. It’s also difficult (I think impossible) to find people technically competent enough to oversee the process. For instance (and, to cut to the chase), I would have denied NetApp the WAFL patent, since

  1. It’s a simple evolution and/or modification of existing block allocation schemes to facilitate writes (more technical info later on)
  2. There were other COW (Copy On Write) filesystems prior to NetApp, such as LFS and numerous research projects. Specifically,
  3. Daniel Phillips had done most of the COW work prior to NetApp’s patent, but had to abandon work on the tux2 filesystem due to fear of patent laws (see here). He didn’t file a patent first, since nobody that does open source development is thus inclined.

But where do you draw the line on what’s truly new and patentable? And what if enforcing a patent is detrimental to the common good? Should Xerox have patented the mouse? It was totally new back then. What if they’d enforced the patent and told Apple and later Microsoft that they are not allowed, no matter what, to use a mouse? Or if HG Wells patented the science fiction novel? If Hoover patented the vacuum cleaner? If RCA patented the television? You get my drift. There would be zero innovation.

I think patenting obvious stuff should just not be allowed. And, if your patent is based on prior art (regardless of whether it’s been patented), it should be summarily denied. If the patent is granted but is then proven after the fact that someone else had figured out the idea first (as in the case of Mr. Phillips), the patent should automatically be invalidated. Complex, no?

Which is why many think that patenting software should not be allowed.

At the end, with some problems, there is only a finite number of solutions (often only one). Researchers may be working simultaneously on the problem. Eventually, only one will be first with a solution. I am opposed to penalizing the other guy simply because he used a similar algorithm to mine (especially when, mathematically, there may be zero other solutions, making every approach to solve the problem produce the same result).

Back to Sun and NetApp. The truth is, I think, pretty simple. While I have enormous respect for both companies (a bit more for Sun, due to their history and my extensive personal experiences), both companies’ major products are based on a tremendous amount of prior art (patented or not, nobody seems to have complained to either company). Truly, they stand on the shoulders of proverbial IT giants. Sun has the PR benefit of having contributed vast amounts of IP to the world, compared to NetApp (though some technologies like NFS and Java have been pretty painful, so it’s a mixed blessing).

NetApp code heavily borrows from Unix, Sun, IBM, Cisco, EMC and many others. For instance, since Data ONTAP (NetApp’s OS) can’t scale beyond 2 boxes, NetApp purchased Spinnaker – SpinOS creates a single namespace that can transcend many nodes (BTW other products such as IBRIX, Exanet and others can do the same thing really well). The current GX OS is bits from the older ONTAP on top of FreeBSD with some SpinOS bits. However, both the older 7G and the newer GX OSes are offered, since 7G does a lot more (SpinOS can be just large-scale NAS – no iSCSI or FC block device targets, even if those targets on a 7G box are just files, but I digress). Of course NetApp wants to move everyone to SpinOS, which explains NetApp’s current craze with NFS everywhere. It’s infectious, now all of a sudden once again everyone wants to use NFS – VMWare, Oracle, senile grannies running compute clusters all over the world. We get it, it’s a shared-namespace, network-based FS, and sure, you can run pretty much anything on it. People have been for decades. How quickly we forget that it really isn’t the best network-based filesystem, and that there was a reason people developed cool alternative technologies such as AFS, Coda, PVFS, the native IBRIX mode, and many others. The new CIFS that’s part of Windows Server 2008 is actually a really decent implementation, but I’ll probably get flamed by the NFS fanbois for saying so.

And how quickly people forget that it was Sun that gave us NFS, warts and all (well, v4.1 ain’t too bad but that’s a collective effort – the wonders of open source). The rather execrable CIFS, BTW, (the other main NetApp “technology”) was not invented by Microsoft but rather by IBM in 1983. IBM and Cisco invented iSCSI. Legato (now owned by EMC) played a fundamental role in developing NDMP. And I can’t even remember who first created versioning filesystems but I fondly remember my VAXes and they used to do that stuff ages before NetApp even existed (not to mention proper manly-man single-system-image clustering, but that’s a story for another day). I’m pretty sure NetApp didn’t develop Fibre Channel, either.

Cue to today: Now everyone can do snapshots, it’s almost de rigeur, and the truly cool do application-aware snaps.

Volume management is standard, too.

Filesystem expansion is everywhere.

Thin provisioning (not a fan but anyway) is becoming more and more prevalent.

iSCSI is everywhere.

So, the real ZFS issues NetApp is complaining about seem to be the “Write Anywhere” and COW parts, since those are really the only true similarities with WAFL. Seriously, like that’s what’s the most important aspect of Sun’s ZFS. Indeed, while very quick for initial writes, a write-anywhere algorithm can lead to horrific fragmentation and continuously-declining performance over time (which is why you have to defrag NetApp filers). It’s just a safe, easy and computationally cheap method for allocating blocks to minimize write time for write-heavy applications such as NFS. Possibly one of the reasons NetApp did it was because in their boxes there are no RAID controllers, there’s just a CPU or two (486’s I believe in the original boxes) that has to do EVERYTHING – RAID calcs, rebuilds, snaps, caching, etc (the back end of all NetApp gear is JBOD). Using WAFL a lot of the inefficiencies in RAID are bypassed, since it will schedule multiple writes in order to fill a RAID stripe. A more elegant approach such as extent-based allocation (like VxFS) would have been too computationally-intensive, especially for writes. Dave and his pals have a good paper on WAFL here, BTW.

Here’s what ZFS is: It was not meant to be a NetApp killer, it’s just a truly modern FS, with few limits, and an amalgam of all the current “cool” technologies and ideas. Snaps, thin provisioning, expansion, volume management, pools, quotas, self-healing, all in a single technology, that’s surprisingly well thought out, and easy to use even from the command line. ZFS is not the raison d’être of the Solaris OS, but merely a feature of it. Plus it does data checksumming with every write, which other filesystems don’t. Your data is exceptionally safe in ZFS. Some test results here. More features here, and it’s easy to see NetApp getting annoyed after reading that page (though they just think COW is a good idea, the other tremendous features are not in NetApp’s WAFL). Not sure if they fixed the read performance issues NetApp has with their implementation, I need to do some testing of my own.

In my opinion, the only reason NetApp became popular is because it trivialized the whole NAS aspect. Made it easy to build decent, clustered NFS/CIFS boxes without the need to know UNIX. If Sun had put a wizard-driven GUI to perform such actions in their boxes 10 years ago, NetApp might not exist today. To date, I think Sun’s management tools are pathetic, no matter how amazingly solid the underlying tech might be. There’s a GUI for ZFS but, again, that’s besides the point. Aside from initial write performance, a NetApp filer is not about WAFL, extending disk pools and whatnot, it’s about all-around ease-of-use and the sheer amount of cool features.

If NetApp wants to sue someone so badly, maybe they need to sue the Openfiler or FreeNAS developers? Or, if they want to go after someone that’s not open source, how about Open-E? That stuff sure looks much more similar to NetApp than anything made by Sun. Really cool, too. Or maybe they need to sue EMC. Those guys sure make some nice, full-featured NAS gear. Among a myriad other solutions…

Suing someone over a filesystem that’s newer and better in almost every single way than yours but uses one common (and unavoidable in the case of COW) design methodology is just plain silly… and, BTW, how did this escape the patent trolls? Another COW implementation?

And if more developers like Daniel Phillips get scared because of patent laws, then innovation will truly be stifled. The whole point of research is that you can reference other people’s ideas so you don’t always have to re-invent the wheel.

NetApp needs to innovate a bit more themselves. They developed a cool technology and have milked it to death, and even made it do things it shouldn’t (like iSCSI and FC targets, the NetApp approach is really unclean but they are trying to force their OS to do everything, whereas companies like EMC go for the more modular approach and are criticized for being “complex”).

I think I’ll stop writing now since it’s getting late. Never was one to save posts for editing later.


One Reply to “My opinion on the Sun/NetApp altercation: Both companies should be grateful instead of resorting to lawsuits”

  1. I completely agree Dimitris. We are in a time of cross roads where the so called patent is more of a pain vs gain maker. And I have to side with Sun’s innovation in the case of WAFL vs ZFS. ZFS is the next generation file system for all to enjoy. Rasberry’s to Dave….

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