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Signs point to licensing problems as Apple discontinues ZFS development

Beth Pariseau

The notion of Apple Inc. including Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Zettabyte File System (ZFS) in Mac OS X appears dead, a likely victim of complications from lawsuits over ZFS and Oracle Corp.'s planned acquisition of Sun.

Sun and Apple reportedly began working together to port ZFS to Mac OS

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in 2006, and speculation was rampant by mid-2008 that ZFS would replace Apple's HFS+ as the default file system for Mac OS X. A promotional page for OS X "Snow Leopard" that appeared in June 2008 included information about ZFS, saying it was "for business-critical server deployments" of the operating system. (That page is no longer available on Apple's website although blogs made screen captures at the time of last year's announcement).

Apple did not include ZFS when it released "Snow Leopard" in August. An open-source project on Mac OS Forge remained standing, but that's now gone, too. A message appeared on Mac OS Forge Friday saying, "The ZFS project has been discontinued. The mailing list and repository will also be removed shortly."

That message ignited speculation on a public Open Solaris mailing list. One participant wrote that Apple could have ported ZFS code to Mac OS X whenever it wanted because it's open-source software, but "wanted a private license" from Sun (with appropriate technical support and indemnification), and the two vendors couldn't agree on terms.

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That brought a message signed with the name of Jeff Bonwick -- a Sun distinguished engineer and chief architect of ZFS – reading, "I cannot disclose details, but that is the essence of it."

Bonwick did not respond to an email from SearchStorage.com for further comment. Apple did not return calls requesting comment, and a Sun spokesperson declined comment.

Analysts see Sun-Oracle merger, NetApp lawsuit playing a role

A lot has happened since Sun and Apple first got together to develop ZFS. First Sun and NetApp Inc. traded lawsuits and counter suits over whether ZFS infringes NetApp's file system patents. Then in April, Oracle said it would acquire Sun, although the deal has yet to close.

Storage industry analysts say the intended acquisitions and lawsuits could have made collaboration on ZFS less attractive to Apple. "ZFS certainly has lots of technology legs and not to mention shared Mac OS X fans," StorageIO founder and analyst Greg Schulz wrote in an email to SearchStorage.com Monday. "However, there [are] also business issues to consider, including Sun and NetApp's ZFS flap [and] Oracle buying Sun."

Apple could be looking to improve its own HFS, Schulz added (and Robin Harris, analyst at StorageMojo, pointed out Monday that Apple is seeking file system engineers). Or the Oracle merger could lead to a new partnership to port to one of the other file systems Oracle owns.

"Users are a bit dubious about Sun's future already, with both post-Oracle acquisition uncertainty and some NetApp patent warfare sitting on the horizon," Taneja Group senior analyst Jeff Boles said. "Apple's pull-out is surrounded by ambiguities, but ultimately is a data point that is likely to exacerbate customer's doubts on both of these fronts, and leave them wondering, is ZFS long term, and is Sun willing to throw their weight behind it to make it happen in places outside the Solaris box?"

Moreover, Boles said, "the Apple user community seriously wanted ZFS, and would have been an interesting force in furthering its development. In my opinion, Sun should have bent over backwards for whatever Apple wanted, and pushed this through. This was an anchor in a safe harbor, while Sun is being tossed by waves."

"I do have to say that I'm really disappointed," said Scott Lowe, national technical lead for virtualization with VAR ePlus Technology Inc. and a prominent technology blogger, who uses Mac OS X Snow Leopard at home. "The functionality of ZFS would have served Apple extremely well as it continues its push into the consumer and home media space. In addition, ZFS' snapshot functionality was a natural fit for Apple's Time Machine."

Enterprise storage customers have alternatives

According to Apple's website last year, ZFS would've provided "advanced features such as storage pooling, data redundancy, automatic error correction, dynamic volume expansion, and snapshots" for Mac OS X users. But while those features may be missed in standalone workstation-level deployments, a systems integrator says his enterprise clients have viable alternatives.

"ZFS would've been a great open-source alternative," said Chris Donoyan, president of Los Angeles-based HomeRun Media Inc., which primarily caters to clients in the Hollywood media and entertainment market. "It could have helped us differentiate ourselves by developing more software applications around it, and potentially let us pick up the phone to talk to developers with ideas about how we'd like to use the file system.

"It would've been nice to see it supported, but I'm not anticipating losing any opportunities as a result of [the open-source project being discontinued]."

Donoyan said that for users looking for advanced data sharing features, he often deploys Quantum Corp.'s StorNext SAN file system. "Apple is careful to say that StorNext is compatible with Xsan, but it isn't officially the Xsan file system," Donoyan said. He hasn't tried StorNext and Xsan with Snow Leopard, but for clients running older versions of Mac OS, Donoyan said StorNext provides support for multiple clients like PCs and Linux machines in addition to Macs.