Cisco's patent and copyright lawsuits against Arista Networks could hobble the Cisco rival at a time when it is facing increased pressure to grow in the wake of its recent IPO. The Cisco-Arista legal dispute also paints Cisco as a bully.
Cisco announced two lawsuits last week against Arista, whose low-latency data center switches have been challenging Cisco in certain market segments, especially high finance and cloud providers. Among Cisco's many accusations in the suits is a core assertion -- that Arista has openly copied 14 patented features in Cisco switches, including system database, zero-touch provisioning, on-board failure logging, control plane policing, spanning tree loop guard, in-service system upgrades, virtual port channels, access control lists improvements, private VLANs, generic command interface and CLI command data translation.
Cisco also claimed that Arista has intentionally copied copyrighted material, such as multi-word command line expressions in Cisco CLI and large portions of text from Cisco user manuals, according to a blog announcing the suit, written by Cisco General Counsel Mark Chandler.
Many Cisco competitors -- including HP and Juniper Networks -- have emulated Cisco's CLI approach to make it easier for customers to transfer their skills from Cisco-based networks to other platforms. Cisco claimed that Arista has taken such emulation beyond what is reasonable under copyright laws.
"Arista has copied more than 500 Cisco multi-word command expressions, while networking products from HP, [Brocade Communications Systems Inc.], Alcatel-Lucent, Juniper Networks and [Extreme Networks] each have only a small fraction of overlapping CLI commands. In the case of Juniper Junos, the overlap is less than 30 multi-word commands," Chandler wrote.
Fierce Cisco-Arista competition disrupted by legal wrangling
Arista is a small but fierce Cisco competitor in data center networking. It specializes in selling high-performance switches with customizable software at relatively low prices, thanks to the company's reliance on merchant silicon. Arista has been especially popular in high-frequency trading and high-performance computing environments. That success has allegedly forced Cisco to introduce a new line of switches, the Nexus 3000 line, to compete directly with Arista's low-latency, top-of-rack switches.
Cisco's legal action comes just a few quarters after Arista went public. At a time when the company is under pressure to maintain growth, Cisco's lawsuits have the potential to slow down sales, drive down Arista's stock price and weaken confidence among Arista's customers and prospects.
"[I'm] not a customer, but I don’t like [the lawsuits]," said Keith Townsend, an IT management consultant who blogs at VirtualizedGeek.com. "After six years of EOS, it disrupts the industry in a non-positive way."
Kanat Iliasov, a former engineer at Cisco, described the Cisco-Arista dispute as a PR mess for Cisco. "Now they are seen as bullies. No one will benefit from this. HP and Quagga copy at least 50% of Cisco CLI. [It] was not a problem."
"It seems a little petty to me, but I mean Cisco has a valid case against a competitors, so whatever," said Brandon Mangold, network architect at United Airlines. "I think people are making a mountain out of a molehill, though. [It's] not like Apple going after Samsung for billions."
Arista's formal response to the lawsuit -- a blog written by Arista board member Dan Scheinman -- dismissed Cisco's claims. "Cisco's lawsuit is just like the lawsuits (actual and threatened) brought against it in the 90s by Lucent, IBM and Nortel -- an attempt by a legacy vendor that is falling behind in the marketplace to use the legal system to try and slow a competitor who is innovating and winning," Scheinman wrote.
Scheinman also rejected the merits of Cisco's copyright and patent complaints. "The command line interface has been the industry standard method of configuring switches for decades and is widely used," he wrote. "Arista's EOS [operating system] was developed from the ground up as a next-generation network operating system for the cloud based upon the pioneering technologies invented by Arista -- far from the ugly messaging pursued by Cisco on Friday."
Arista CEO Jayshree Ullal, just one of many former Cisco employees who now work at Arista, added a brief personal statement. "I am disappointed at Cisco's tactics. It's not the Cisco I knew."
In a counter-response to Arista's statements, Cisco released a statement calling Arista's rejection of the copyright claims as a "red herring … It's what they want the world to focus on and [it] ignores the most significant issues of patent violation. The most important question is why Arista feels they could not innovate, like many of our competitors have done, to compete on their own."
Cisco-Arista dispute: Lawsuits disrupt small companies
Cisco has the money and the resources to prosecute these suits. Arista, on the other hand, could find such legal proceedings disruptive, said Joe Skorupa, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner Inc.
"These sorts of suits can be very distracting to the management team of a smaller company," he said. "Management can't hand things off to very senior people to cover while you're off dealing with [a lawsuit]. So if the management team is actively involved in selling, it makes it harder to close deals and slows down business."
Patent suits can take a long time, but Arista customers will obviously be worried about a potential injunction that would force Arista to stop selling its gear, Skorupa said. "But in most patent cases that doesn't happen. And even long term there is usually a licensing agreement, rather than killing a product. But once it gets into the courts in front of jury, who knows?"