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IBM sues Micro Focus, claims it copied Big Blue mainframe software

It's all kicking off around company's CICS service

Updated IBM has filed a lawsuit against Micro Focus, alleging the enterprise software company copied and reverse-engineered its CICS mainframe service to develop a rival product, the Micro Focus Enterprise Server.

Big Blue has brought the case in the US District Court in New York, citing violation of copyright law and claiming that Micro Focus was in "blatant breach" of its contractual obligations with IBM.

In a strongly worded complaint, the company accused UK-based Micro Focus of "brazen theft" of IBM software and said the suit was filed to "protect [its] valuable intellectual property."

IBM is seeking compensation as well as an injunction against Micro Focus that would prohibit the company from distributing the products Big Blue labels as "derivative works" it claims are based upon IBM's own computer software.

We asked Micro Focus for its reaction to this legal action, and will update the article if we receive a response.

The complaint filed by IBM [PDF] claims Micro Focus entered into contracts with IBM to benefit from its developer programs and get access to Big Blue's technology, and accuses Micro Focus of purposefully breaching the terms of those agreements to suit its own ends.

The lawsuit centers on IBM's CICS Transaction Server for z/OS, regarded by the company as a key piece of software for its mainframe systems. CICS, or Customer Information Control System, serves as a middleware layer for transaction processing between a customer application and an underlying database, and is used for mission-critical operations by many companies in the banking, transportation, retail, and insurance sectors.

"On an IBM mainframe, CICS manages the sharing of resources, the integrity of data and prioritization of execution, with fast response. CICS authorizes users, allocates resources, and passes on database requests by the application to the appropriate database manager (such as DB2)," Omdia chief analyst Roy Illsley explained.

One of IBM's allegations in the suit is that Micro Focus used its developer access to reverse-engineer CICS in order to create Micro Focus Enterprise Server and Micro Focus Enterprise Developer, which the company still sells.

Micro Focus Enterprise Server has in fact been available for the best part of two decades, which may mean that the cost for Micro Focus if the case goes against it could be high. In its filing, Big Blue says that the situation "recently came to IBM's attention," but does not detail precisely what alleged details prompted the filing.

What IBM does say is that the Web Services part of CICS uses a "web service binding file," known as WSBIND, to expose CICS programs as web services for external access via a network.

The complaint goes on to claim that Micro Focus's Enterprise Suite also offers a web services implementation that includes a WSBIND file for mapping data, and alleges that Micro Focus's WSBIND file contains "near identical" architecture and design to IBM's own.

The legal case could have implications for organizations that are using mainframe migration tools as part of a process to modernize their IT systems, as the Micro Focus Enterprise Server often forms a part of these, allowing organizations to lift and shift their mainframe applications to clusters of Windows or Linux servers.

Phil Dawson, VP at Gartner Research, said it highlighted that mainframe users needed to think more carefully about modernizing applications, and consider whether rebuilding them from scratch on a different platform was better than simply migrating the code.

"A lift and shift migration could get you into a honey trap," he said. His advice to clients is that a transformation might be better, which might see the customer rebuild their application on something else, like SAP S4/HANA.

Earlier this year, IBM filed another lawsuit claiming reverse engineering of its mainframe software on a company called LzLabs. IBM claimed that LzLabs had set up a shell company, Winsopia, to license IBM mainframe software with the sole purpose of creating a product, Software Defined Mainframe (SDM), which allowed IBM mainframe users to migrate applications to another platform.

Meanwhile, Micro Focus is itself in the process of being acquired by Canadian outfit OpenText in a deal said to be worth $6 billion. The transaction is expected to close in the first quarter of calendar 2023. ®

Updated to add:

Micro Focus said in a statement: "We believe the claims contained in the complaint to be entirely without merit.

"We look forward to addressing what we consider to be baseless allegations through all available legal channels." It added that the proposed acquisition of Micro Focus by OpenText and its regulatory approvals were "on track for completion in the first calendar quarter of 2023" and said it expected the suit to have "no impact on the completion of the transaction."

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