Yesterday was D-Day for Arista in their fight with Cisco over the SysDB patent. I’ve covered this a bit for Network Computing in the past, but I wanted to cover some new things here and put a bit more opinion into my thoughts.
Cisco Designates The Competition
As the great Stephen Foskett (@SFoskett) says, you always have to punch above your weight. When you are a large company, any attempt to pick on the “little guy” looks bad. When you’re at the top of the market it’s even tougher. If you attempt to fight back against anyone you’re going to legitimize them in the eye of everyone else wanting to take a shot at you.
Cisco has effectively designated Arista as their number one competitor by way of this lawsuit. Arista represents a larger threat that HPE, Brocade, or Juniper. Yes, I agree that it is easy to argue that the infringement constituted a material problem to their business. But at the same time, Cisco very publicly just said that Arista is causing a problem for Cisco. Enough of a problem that Cisco is going to take them to court. Not make Arista license the patent. That’s telling.
Also, Cisco’s route of going through the ITC looks curious. Why not try to get damages in court instead of making the ITC ban them from importing devices? I thought about this for a while and realized that even if there was a court case pending it wouldn’t work to Cisco’s advantage in the short term. Cisco doesn’t just want to prove that Arista is copying patents. They want to hurt Arista. That’s why they don’t want to file an injunction to get the switches banned. That could take years and involve lots of appeals. Instead, the ITC can just simply say “You cannot bring these devices into the country”, which effectively bans them.
Cisco has gotten what it wants short term: Arista is going to have to make changes to SysDB to get around the patent. They are going to have to ramp up domestic production of devices to get around the import ban. Their train of development is disrupted. And Cisco’s general counsel gets to write lots of posts about how they won.
Yet, even if Arista did blatantly copy the SysDB stuff and run with it, now Cisco looks like the 800-pound gorilla stomping on the little guy through the courts. Not by making better products. Not by innovating and making something that eclipses the need for software like this. No, Cisco won by playing the playground game of “You stole my idea and I’m going to tell!!!”
Arista’s Three-Edged Sword
Arista isn’t exactly coming out of this on the moral high ground either. Arista has gotten a black eye from a lot of the quotes being presented as evidence in this case. Ken Duda said that Arista “slavishly copied” Cisco’s CLI. There have been other comments about “secret sauce” and the way that SysDB is used. A few have mentioned to me privately that the copying done by Arista was pretty blatant.
Understanding is a three-edged sword: Your side, their side, and the truth.
Arista’s side is that they didn’t copy anything important. Cisco’s side is that EOS has enough things that have been copied that it should be shut down and burned to the ground. The truth lies somewhere in the middle of it all.
Arista didn’t copy everything from IOS. They hired people who worked on IOS and likely saw things they’d like to implement. Those people took ideas and ran with them to come up with a better solution. Those ideas may or may not have come from things that were worked on at Cisco. But if you hire a bunch of employees from a competitor, how do you ensure that their ideas aren’t coming from something they were supposed to have “forgotten”?
Arista most likely did what any other company in that situation would do: they gambled. Maybe SysDB was more copied that created. But so long as Arista made money and didn’t really become a blip on Cisco radar. That’s telling. Listen to this video, which starts at 4:40 and goes to about 6:40:
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Doug Gourlay said something that has stuck with me for the last four years: “Everyone that ever set out to compete against Cisco and said, ‘We’re going to do it and be everything to everyone’ has failed. Utterly.”
Arista knew exactly which market they wanted to attack: 10Gig and 40Gig data center switches. They made the best switch they could with the best software they could and attacked that market with all the force they could muster. But, the gamble would eventually have to either pay off or come due. Arista had to know at some point that a strategy shift would bring them under the crosshairs of Cisco. And Cisco doesn’t forgive if you take what’s theirs. Even if, and I’m quoting from both a Cisco 10-K from 1996 and a 2014 Annual Report:
[It is] not economically practical or even possible to determine in advance whether a product or any of its components infringes or will infringe on the patent rights of others.
So Arista built the best switch they could with the knowledge that some of their software may not have been 100% clean. Maybe they had plans to clean it up later. Or iterate it out of existence. Who knows? Now, Arista has to face up to that choice and make some new ones to keep selling their products. Whether or not they intended to fight the 800-pound gorilla of networking at the start, they certainly stumbled into a fight here.
I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even pretend to be one. I do know that the fate of a technology company now rests in the hands of non-technical people that are very good and wringing nuance out of words. Tech people would look at this and shake their heads. Did Arista copy something? Probably? Was is something Cisco wanted copied? Probably not? Should Cisco have unloaded the legal equivalent of a thermonuclear warhead on them? Doubtful.
Cisco is punishing Arista to ensure no one every copies their ideas again. As I said before, the outcome of this case will doom the Command Line Interface. No one is going to want to tangle with Cisco again. Which also means that no one is going to want to develop things along the Cisco way again. Which means Cisco is going to be less relevant in the minds of networking engineers as REST APIs and other programming architectures become more important that remembering to type conf t every time.
Arista will survive. They will make changes that mean their switches will live on for customers. Cisco will survive. They get to blare their trumpets and tell the whole world they vanquished an unworthy foe. But the battle isn’t over yet. And instead of it being fought over patents, it’s going to be fought as the industry moves away from CLI and toward a model that doesn’t favor those who don’t innovate.