Cisco Gets a Win in Patent Dispute With Arista

The ITC ruled that Arista violated three Cisco patents, a decision that could help lead to Arista being banned from selling some of its products.

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Cisco Systems won a round in its ongoing legal dispute with Arista Networks when a regulatory agency ruled that the smaller rival had violated three of Cisco's patents.

An administrative judge with the International Trade Commission (ITC) on Feb.- 2 backed Cisco's assertion that Arista had infringed on the patents in the development of its EOS networking operating system. However, Administrative Law Judge David Shaw ruled that Arista had not violated two other Cisco patents.

The three patents that the ITC ruled had been violated involved database (SysDB) and virtual LAN software in Cisco's network switches.

The ruling could lead to significant impacts on Arista. Cisco filed two lawsuits in federal court against Arista in December 2014 alleging that Arista is using 12 Cisco features covered by 14 patents in its own products, and two weeks later asked the ITC to ban Arista from selling or importing any of the disputed products.

In addition, with Shaw's February 2 ruling, the attention will turn to a ruling coming up in a second ITC investigation, which Cisco officials said will be decided in April. Arista officials last month added another layer to the legal dispute when they sued Cisco in U.S. District Court in Northern California, accusing Cisco of monopolistic business practices that unfairly harms both competing vendors and users. The lawsuit is part of Arista's response to Cisco's patent infringement allegations.

Cisco officials saw the ITC's ruling as an important win for the company, foreshadowing what the agency may decide in April. In a post on the company blog, Mark Chandler, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary at Cisco, wrote that "this notice marks the beginning of the end for Arista's systemic copying of our intellectual property."

"Arista can no longer support claims to customers, resellers, and the market that they created products from 'a clean sheet of paper,'" Chandler wrote. "The patents in question go to the core of Arista's products. … Arista's CEO has previously referred to 'SysDB' as Arista's 'secret sauce' and more recently, the architecture on which NetDB is built. None of the patents have been proposed for or adopted as industry standards."

All the patents at issue were either invented by Cisco employees who became Arista executives—such as Arista CEO Jayshree Ullal—or by engineers who worked for those Arista officials when they were employed at Cisco, he wrote. Chandler said the use of Cisco's intellectual property was deliberate and driven by the most senior executives "to unfairly compete. Copying and misappropriation are not a legitimate strategy, and today's ruling is a vindication of our position."

Arista officials have argued that Cisco's complaints have more to do with protecting a threatened business model and data center market share than defending intellectual property.

"Struggling to apply old technology to the new world of cloud computing, Cisco is potentially facing the largest loss of data center market share in its history," Kenneth Duda, CTO and senior vice president of software engineering at Arista and a software engineer at Cisco for almost three years in the late 1990s, wrote in a post on the Arista blog. "We can understand why Cisco would take the battle from the marketplace to the courtroom. What surprises us is the length that Cisco has gone to misrepresent our actions and the nature of the litigation in order to justify [its] assault."

Duda said that no line of code in Arista software comes from Cisco, coming instead from Arista engineers or third parties. He also reiterated Arista's contention that Cisco for years has pushed its command line interfaces (CLIs) as industry standards, and that only now is it claiming patent rights because it is threatened with lost revenue and market share because of the rapid changes in the networking industry.

It's an argument Arista officials made in their lawsuit against Cisco, and one that Cisco executives have pushed back against. They've argued that while other vendors, such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Juniper Networks, have copied small numbers of commands for their products, Arista has used 550 commands from the CLIs for its EOS.