Cisco Systems took legal action Friday against rival Arista Networks, claiming patent and copyright infringement.
The networking giant is filing two lawsuits in the US District Court for the Northern District of California to "stop Arista's repeated and pervasive copying of key inventions in Cisco products," Cisco general counsel Mark Chandler wrote in a blog post.
An Arista spokesperson said in an email: "We just became aware of the lawsuit and have not had an opportunity to evaluate the claims in detail. We will certainly be doing so in the coming days. While we have respect for Cisco as a fierce competitor and the dominant player in the market, we are disappointed that they have to resort to litigation rather than simply compete with us in products."
Arista CEO Jayshree Ullal, a former Cisco executive, said, "I am disappointed at Cisco's tactics. It's not the Cisco I knew."
Founded in 2004, Arista targets its networking equipment at large data centers. The Santa Clara, Calif., company went public six months ago.
The core of the legal action focuses on what Chandler called Arista's "deliberate inclusion" in its products of 12 Cisco features covered by 14 patents. All the features are used in current Cisco products and are not incorporated in industry standards, he wrote. They were patented by former Cisco employees who now work at Arista or Cisco employees who worked with executives now at Arista.
"Arista's copying was a strategy, not an accident," Chandler wrote. Sections of copyrighted user manuals are included in Arista documentation, including grammatical errors. He also alleged that Arista copied more than 500 multi-word command-line expressions from Cisco's IOS directly into its Extensible Operating System (EOS).
Chandler also cited quotes from Arista executives in published reports that he claimed illustrate how the company uses its executives' prior work with Cisco and use of Cisco intellectual property as a key selling point. "Our goal is to stop infringement by a competitor of features that are in products that we are shipping today."
Tom Nolle, president and founder of the consulting firm CIMI Corp., told us there's no way for anyone without a licensed right to examine the material involved in the case to say whether Cisco's claims are true. "This is one of those things where the substance of the case will shadow box behind the shield of intellectual property rights. We won't know anything for a year or more."
But the timing of Cisco's legal action is interesting, given that Arista has been around for a while, he said.
"There's a shift in the market now that's behind this. It's become very clear that traditional networking, meaning switches and routers to push bits around, has seen its best day, and nothing, absolutely nothing, is going to bring it back," Nolle said. "We're now looking at the question of how does the network of the future get built, starting from but separating from the network of the present? That puts enormous pressure on market leaders like Cisco.
"If you're an incumbent in switching and routing, and the goal of buyers of evolved network technology is to commoditize at best and eliminate at worst switching and routing, you've got issues. Cisco is attempting to respond as much to market conditions as to risk of intellectual property loss."
Nolle said lawsuits like Cisco's are impossible to resolve quickly and can initially create the impression of a bully beating up a younger kid, which is difficult to disprove even if there is merit in the case.
"Without examining the material, I can't be sure, but the biggest risk to Cisco isn't going to be in the area where Cisco alleges infringement," he said. "The biggest risk to Cisco is that we're going to see a transformation of network technology so profound that most current patents wouldn't have any value."