Legal cases can take a long time to settle. Even in the fast-paced world of technology the legal system can take many, many months and sometimes years to make determinations about things like patent and copyright infringement. As Network Computing readers know, Cisco and Arista have been embroiled in just such a legal dispute for more than three years now. However, it looks like the light at the end of this particular legal tunnel may be approaching soon with Arista winning several key decisions. Let's take a look at recent developments in this case and where the two rivals stand.
One of the biggest developments in the Cisco/Arista saga has been the findings of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) this time last year. PTAB ruled that two of the patents Cisco argued were infringed upon by Arista were invalid. Patent 6377577, which covers ACL processing in hardware, and Patent 7224668, which covers control-plane policing, were both ruled invalid in June 2017. Despite various appeals, the findings of PTAB have been upheld in federal court in the case of the '668 patent. The '577 patent is still under review under appeal. However, the patent expired last month.
The invalidation of the patents by PTAB creates issues for Cisco's legal case. Cisco asked the United State International Trade Commission (ITC) to suspend imports of Arista devices that infringe upon specific patents. The ITC issued rulings in favor of Cisco initially, but soon reversed those decisions on appeal from Arista. With invalid patents underpinning the legal case, it becomes difficult for Cisco to insist that Arista is infringing upon their intellectual property.
Arista also asserts that any infringement in the '577 patent is inadvertent, as these features are contained in the merchant silicon chips that Arista uses in their systems from suppliers like Broadcom and Intel. Arista argues that Cisco has had 20 years to protect its intellectual property by suing Broadcom and Intel over their infringement and yet has chosen not to do so. Instead, Cisco chooses to sue a direct competitor and downstream consumer of these chips.
The sole remaining patent that Cisco is still fighting on is Patent 7162537, more colloquially known as the SysDB patent. Arista has both redesigned its SysDB implementation to avoid any infringement and also argued that its implementation of SysDB does not infringe upon the original patent in the first place.
As I discussed in a previous blog, Arista has decided to try and prove that the Cisco view of the '537 patent is overly broad and not directly applicable to Arista devices. Arista has also received rulings from the federal administrative law judge in the case that Arista's redesigned SysDB no longer infringes. The final review for this patent will be in September. Cisco executives have even said that they hope that Arista's redesign of SysDB no longer infringes and that they "welcome it as progress in the right direction."
Arista also won a favorable ruling from a federal jury, which in December 2016 rejected Cisco's copyright claims against Arista over its use of CLI. The ruling was upheld in 2017.
Arista seems to have weathered the storm of these legal proceedings with aplomb. Arista has met or exceeded expectations in each of the last three quarters. Investors seem to be pleased with the direction of the company and the stock price has gone up steadily since its low of $142/share in August. This reflects the confidence of the investors in the product that Arista is producing. It also belies the worry that there will be any permanent legal outcome from the Cisco battle.
The case also appears to be losing steam for Cisco. With two major patents invalidated by PTAB and Cisco forcing the ITC to review its determinations again, it's unlikely that Cisco will be able to prevent the import of Arista switches. As previously mentioned, the strategy of Cisco appealing to the ITC initially before PTAB could rule on the patent validity seemed to be a calculated risk. If Cisco could interrupt the import of Arista devices even for a few months, it could cause issues with Arista's supply chain and cash flow. With the PTAB ruling, Cisco is now down to the '537 patent as the sole remaining valid patent that Arista hasn't won a ruling on in its entirety.
That's not to say that Arista is out of the woods just yet from a legal perspective. Appeals are still pending in both the '537 redesign ruling as well as the jury trial findings of Arista's infringement on the Cisco CLI. Cisco is appealing that ruling as well. If these verdicts are overturned or retried, then Arista will need to prove its case all again and may open itself up to a reversal in the favor of Cisco.
What's the bottom line? Cisco isn't going to be able to stop Arista's momentum in the switching market. The world looks much different now than it did in 2014 when this lawsuit was first filed. With the rise of network disaggregation, cloud computing, and other hot technologies driving network innovation, the role of the network has changed dramatically. Instead of worrying about technologies like private VLANs or control-plane policing, networking vendors are more focused on creating value in their software than in their hardware. The real winner will be the company that can innovate and adapt to today's technology needs.