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Symantec vs. Microsoft: Headache for storage buyers?

Analysts warn that Symantec's intellectual property lawsuit filed against Microsoft could break down their partnership and lead to tougher purchasing decisions for users.

So far, the prevailing wisdom concerning a lawsuit brought against Microsoft by Symantec on May 18, which alleges improper use of Veritas Software Corp.'s Volume Manager product in the new Vista release of Windows, is that important purchasing decisions are likely to become more challenging.

Brad O'Neill, senior analyst with the Taneja Group, said the focus in the industry on software and services, as opposed to hardware differentiation, is creating new conflicts where there had been cooperation. Symantec vs. Microsoft is the first example, but O'Neill said he didn't think it would be the last. In fact, he said, look for Cisco Systems Inc. and Microsoft to butt heads in similar fashion over the distributed enterprise.

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"As all of these Tier-1 players try to take charge of the future in the storage industry, this is not the last time we will see large platform players get into this kind of wrestling match," he said. "End users cannot take for granted that partnerships that exist today will last -- and that will make critical purchasing decisions more challenging."

User wants simplicity

At least one user feels that whether or not Microsoft ripped off Symantec's intellectual property (IP), getting the host-based storage virtualization product free with the Windows OS, as opposed to having to pay Veritas for full functionality, could be a boon.

In fact, Luther Midelfort, a subsidiary of the Mayo Clinic, based in Wisconsin, has already put off deploying Veritas' product because it gets what it needs from Windows.

"We've evaluated Veritas' Volume Manager quite a few times and have yet to put it into production, primarily because the features we've needed are included in Windows 2003," said Luke Kannel, information systems specialist for Luther Midelfort.

He added, "If Symantec wins the lawsuit and Virtual Disk Service (VDS) and Volume Shadow Copy (VSS) were removed from Windows, I see major changes to our backup and SRM [storage resource management] infrastructure, as our hardware vendors have integrated their array specific software with VDS and VSS."

However, some analysts warn that what seems like a precedent for the coveted single-tool IT infrastructure could actually prove more fractious to the industry than not.

Analyst Arun Taneja, founder of the Taneja Group, believes that the kind of contractual ambiguity that might lead to a problem like this one is puzzling but pointed out that Veritas is a very different company today than in 1996 -- and even more so now with the clout of Symantec behind it.

"I've seen so many small companies do dumb things because they really want to lock up a deal with the big guys," he said. "It's not unheard of for a company like that to let ambiguous language slip by that could leave them open to problems in the future."

But, he said, whatever the letter of the lawsuit, its spirit is what's important. "If the industry doesn't learn to deal with the kind of 'coopetition' Symantec and Microsoft have engaged in, in a clean fashion, it's bad for everyone, including the end user."

Taneja said that if what Symantec alleges is true -- that Microsoft has stolen its source code and forced it to compete with its own product -- and Microsoft gets away with it, the precedent set would be one of mistrust that could have a ripple effect on other industry partnerships.

"It would create an atmosphere of mistrust, where no one would want to partner with one another for fear of being ripped off like that," Taneja said. "And ultimately, the negative impact is on the end user."

"The end user responds to reliable convenience," according to O'Neill, "So the addition of Volume Manager's capabilities to the aircraft carrier that is the Windows platform seems like a pretty good deal."

Not every analyst agrees -- many, including the Enterprise Strategy Group's Jon Oltsik, feel that the worst-case scenario is still for any delay to occur in the shipping of the new Windows platform. "In this situation, users would miss out on the file system enhancements in Vista for as long as the case took to play out," he said.

Another analyst, who declined to be named, thought the question was not whether Symantec or Microsoft would prevail but what the "real issue" is. "One of the parties here is trying to get the other to the bargaining table, and my jury is out on which one."

Publicly, of course, both sides are releasing statements stressing how much effort they put into negotiation to try to resolve the issue without resorting to litigation. But the anonymous analyst is doubtful. "My guess is that it has something to do with data protection and backup, products Symantec acquired from Veritas that it needs a new home for."

Microsoft has argued, in public statements concerning the suit, that it has been using storage services IP from Veritas (now part of Symantec) since it signed a deal with the then fledgling vendor in 1996. Microsoft's says it has been incorporating Vertias code into its own products since exercising an option, which was written into a contract in 2004, to do so.

Symantec claims that Microsoft's interpretation of what it could license is way off base.

Let the lawyers begin.

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