Cisco Sues Networking Rival Arista in Patent Dispute

The company claims Arista executives—including several ex-Cisco officials—put patented Cisco features into their networking products.

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Cisco Systems is suing 10-year-old rival Arista Networks—a company founded by several ex-Cisco employees—for alleged copyright violations of a broad range of Cisco products and patents.

Cisco on Dec. 5 filed two lawsuits in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California, claiming that Arista is using 12 Cisco features covered by 14 patents in its own products and is promoting those capabilities as selling points for its own solutions.

In a lengthy post on the Cisco blog, Mark Chandler, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary at the networking vendor, wrote that the bulk of patented features at the heart of the lawsuits were either patented by people who now work at Arista or by people at Cisco who had worked with those now at Arista.

There are more than half a dozen ex-Cisco officials at Arista, including President and CEO Jayshree Ullal; founder and Chief Development Officer Andy Bechtolsheim, who was a founder of Sun Microsystems who came to Cisco after the networking company bought his startup Granite Systems in 1996; Kenneth Duda, founder, CTO and senior vice president of software engineering; and Anshul Sadana, senior vice president of custom engineering.

Chandler noted statements in the media by Ullal and other Arista executives boasting of their prior experience at Cisco.

"Particularly troubling is that Arista promotes the theft of Cisco's intellectual property as a key differentiator for Arista versus other Cisco competitors," Chandler wrote. "Arista considers their executives' prior work with Cisco and the ability to copy Cisco intellectual property to be a key selling point for their products and for the stock of their company."

In a statement to media outlets, Arista officials said they had not yet reviewed the claims, but criticized Cisco officials for resorting to "litigation rather than simply compete with us in products." Arista's Ullal—a former Cisco senior vice president who at one time had been responsible for such technologies as the Nexus 7000 and Catalyst 4500 and 6500 networking product lines—said in a statement that she is "disappointed at Cisco's tactics. It's not the Cisco I knew."

The move by Cisco comes as the company continues its transformation from a network box maker into an enterprise IT solutions vendor. The company has seen its core networking business stagnate in recent quarters—in the most recent quarter, Cisco's switching business grew 3 percent, while the router unit shrunk 4 percent—and is looking to deal with the rapid changes occurring in the global networking market with the growth of software-defined networking (SDN) and network-functions virtualization (NFV).

Arista went public in June and in the most recent quarter saw its revenues jump 53 percent over the same period in 2013, to $155.5 million, and income hit $28.1 million, almost double that from last year. Arista officials have said the company, which points to its EOS networking operating system as the foundation of its technology, has more than 2,700 customers and 3 million cloud networking ports deployed across the world.

According to Cisco's Chandler, many of those products have been built by leveraging proprietary and patent-protected technology developed by Cisco. He laid out an array of patents that allegedly were infringed upon, touching on everything from zero-touch provisioning and control plane policing to virtual port channels and private virtual LANs.

"Arista's copying was a strategy, not an accident, and this is illustrated by the action we brought today regarding copyrighted materials," Chandler wrote. "Entire sections of our copyrighted user manuals, complete with grammatical errors, are included in Arista's documentation."

He pointed to more than 500 multi-word command-line expressions that Cisco is claiming Arista copied from Cisco's IOS operating system for EOS.

"Arista has copied more than 500 Cisco multi-word command expressions, while networking products from HP, Brocade, Alcatel-Lucent, Juniper Networks and Extreme each have only a small fraction of overlapping CLI commands," Chandler wrote. "In the case of Juniper Junos, the overlap is less than 30 multi-word commands. These formidable competitors have innovated on their own, rather than copy, to create value and interoperability for their customers."