Patent Wars may Chill Data Center Innovation

Yahoo may have just sent a cold chill across the data center industry at large and begun a stifling of data center innovation.  In a May 3, 2012 article, Forbes did a quick and dirty analysis on the patent wars between Facebook and Yahoo. It’s a quick read but shines an interesting light on the potential impact something like this can have across the industry.   The article, found here,  highlights that :

In a new disclosure, Facebook added in the latest version of the filing that on April 23 Yahoo sent a letter to Facebook indicating that Yahoo believes it holds 16 patents that “may be relevant” to open source technology Yahoo asserts is being used in Facebook’s data centers and servers.

While these types of patent infringement cases happen all the time in the Corporate world, this one could have far greater ramifications on an industry that has only recently emerged into the light of sharing of ideas.    While details remain sketchy at the time of this writing, its clear that the specific call out of data center and servers is an allusion to more than just server technology or applications running in their facilities.  In fact, there is a specific call out of data centers and infrastructure. 

With this revelation one has to wonder about its impact on the Open Compute Project which is being led by Facebook.   It leads to some interesting questions. Has their effort to be more open in their designs and approaches to data center operations and design led them to a position of risk and exposure legally?  Will this open the flood gates for design firms to become more aggressive around functionality designed into their buildings?  Could companies use their patents to freeze competitors out of colocation facilities in certain markets by threatening colo providers with these types of lawsuits?  Perhaps I am reaching a bit but I never underestimate litigious fervor once the  proverbial blood gets in the water. 

In my own estimation, there is a ton of “prior art”, to use an intellectual property term, out there to settle this down long term, but the question remains – will firms go through that lengthy process to prove it out or opt to re-enter their shells of secrecy?  

After almost a decade of fighting to open up the collective industry to share technologies, designs, and techniques this is a very disheartening move.   The general Glasnost that has descended over the industry has led to real and material change for the industry.  

We have seen the mental shift of companies move from measuring facilities purely around “Up Time” measurements to one that is primarily more focused around efficiency as well.  We have seen more willingness to share best practices and find like minded firms to share in innovation.  One has to wonder, will this impact the larger “greening” of data centers in general.   Without that kind of pressure – will people move back to what is comfortable?

Time will certainly tell.   I was going to make a joke about the fact that until time proves out I may have to “lawyer” up just to be safe.  Its not really a joke however because I’m going to bet other firms do something similar and that, my dear friends, is how the innovation will start to freeze.

 

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