IBM Corp. raised industry eyebrows last week by telling the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) that the company will charge licensing fees for pending patents that pertain to the Multi-Protocol Label Switching quality-of-service specification.
By requiring other vendors to license IBM's technology if they want to fully implement MPLS, IBM could slow deployment and drive up MPLS equipment prices.
IBM's move could also reduce the benefits of the specification because developers might choose not to implement the technology if they have to pay for it.
Additionally, IBM's action could lead to non-standard implementations of MPLS, thus defeating the specification's overall purpose.
MPLS defines a standard way to steer IP traffic through the Internet over predefined routes, providing predictable performance and thereby helping to guarantee IP quality of service (QoS).
"The IETF will have to get used to patented technology," says John Tavs, TCP/IP technology manager for IBM in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. "As long as patents are legal in the U.S. and networks are important to business, then patents will play an important role in the standards process. The Internet community has to decide how it's going to responsibly address patented technology," he said.
"Our intent is not to delay deployment of MPLS products," Tavs says. "It's only to raise the awareness of possible infringement."
Sharp Criticism Voiced
Critics say IBM's stance flies in the face of the open standards process.
"I will not be paying any money to IBM," says Hemant Kanakia, CEO of router startup Torrent Networking Technologies in Silver Spring, Maryland. "We can develop whatever technology we need ourselves."
Kanakia adds, "MPLS is supposed to be a networkwide standard. As soon as a company starts charging money for it, the standard is dirt and people will stop using it."
Tavs would not disclose how much IBM will charge or what specific technology falls under the company's pending patents.
The company's Aggregate Route-based IP Switching (ARIS) technology is part of the specification, along with Cisco Systems Inc.'s Tag Switching technology. Cisco, however, is not charging anything for its contributions.
IETF Chairman Fred Baker says patent claims are not new to the IETF, and that a company only has to disclose the fact that it has filed for patents or holds them to be in compliance with the standards process.
Move Could Backfire
"Intellectual property in its own right is not a problem," Baker says. But by complicating a standard, the company may force implementers to seek alternative methods for carrying out the spec, he says. "If there are two equal technologies, they will go for the unencumbered one."
"If IBM puts too high a price on the license, then it could affect MPLS implementation," says Atul Kapoor, managing director of The Tolly Group, a testing and research firm in Manasquan, New Jersey. "Even if it's a small amount, it could start adding up on a large number of pieces of equipment."
Kapoor says Cisco's Tag Switching and IBM's ARIS are not interchangable. "Tag Switching maps labels to packets; ARIS provides route aggregation. An MPLS implementation would be lacking without route aggregation," he says.
Tom Downey, Cisco's director of product marketing for the Enterprise WAN business unit, says IBM's patent claims are part of the IBM's "Old World" attitude. "In the New World of networking, patents are there to horse trade and cross-license, not to make money," he said.
May Hurt Startups
Downey adds that the smaller vendors -- the startups -- are going to be the ones affected because the larger vendors can just swap patents with IBM.
"If you are a small company, you are not going to pay a lot for a patent -- because you can't," agrees Tony Rybczynski, director of strategic marketing and technologies at Nortel Networks.
One way that the startups can offset the cost of patents is to charge more for their products.
"Depending on the price that IBM is socking vendors with, users will see it in the price of equipment," says Mel Beckman, chief technology officer for the Systems and Software Consortium, an Internet service provider (ISP) in Santa Barbara, California.
Beckman says he already has to pay an extra 7 percent more for IBM SNA capabilities in his Cisco routers.
Beckman adds that he believes IBM is going against the nature of open standards. "Vendors bring their technology to the table to promulgate standards for interoperability, not to feather their nests," he says. "I'd be worried about standards that could get set and then vendors get the money for it. Proprietary interests stifle innovation. It's not healthy for the open standards process."
Kanakia at Torrent says IBM is doing itself harm by putting up roadblocks. "I'd be very surprised if anything proprietary to IBM makes it into the final spec."
"To put something out as a standard, you should understand that you'll get the credit, but you give up your proprietary rights," Beckman says.
IBM representatives say the company has patents pending for other technologies as well, including the Open Shortest Path First Protocol and the Virtual Router Redundancy Protocol.