Novell Finally Finds the Linux Way Back to Success

By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2004-12-27

Novell Finally Finds the Linux Way Back to Success

I remember well when Novell NetWare was the network operating system for PC users. Over in my neck of the woods—mainframes, minis and workstations, oh my!—we were running OS/360 and Unix, but anyone who knew anything about PC-based servers was running NetWare.

I couldnt blame them. NetWare was as stable as the Rock of Gibraltar at a time when network operating systems for PCs were … shall we say, unreliable.

Some companies did use Unix, but getting Microsoft operating system-powered PCs and Unix to work well together in the late 80s and early 90s took a lot of elbow grease and some techno black magic. From the early 80s to the mid-90s, NetWare was simply the better choice for PC LANs.

Then, Microsoft finally got Windows NT to work properly in version 3.51, and while Novell stood pat, the boys from Redmond began to slowly but surely catch up and surpass NetWare in the marketplace.

NT—and then Windows 2000, to my mind—never surpassed NetWare. Heck, to this day there are still businesses that depend on lovingly maintained NetWare 3.1x and 4.x servers for bread-and-butter, print and file-serving networking services.

In the meantime, Novell made several mistakes. The first was that a small group of developers, the so-called Superset, controlled NetWare. No one, not even Novell founder Ray Noorda, could order the Superset around.

Like many other techies, the Superset programmers were great at technology but didnt know the first thing about marketing. So for example, for the longest time, Drew Major, the father of NetWare, opposed a management GUI for NetWare. As administrators turned more and more to GUIs—thanks in large part to NT—NetWare, with its X:\ command-line prompt interface, looked less and less current.

Novell also made other marketing mistakes. Perhaps the single most damaging one was Novells decision to try to capture some of the excitement of the early Internet boom by renaming NetWare 4.11 as intraNetWare.

Almost everyone assumed that NetWare was being discontinued for a new, Internet-based product. By the time Novell got that straightened out, by abandoning intraNetWare for the tried-and-true NetWare, the door had been opened wide for Microsoft and NT.

So it was that NetWare went into a long decline. Then, Novell managers, led by vice chairman Chris Stone, saw that Novell could either decline into irrelevance or make a radical change They decided that Novell would become a Linux company.

Novell did this by buying Linux power SuSE. Ironically, SCO, then called Caldera, had been founded by Novell refugees years earlier who had seen that the future of server operating systems lay in Linux. By the time Novell finally decided that Linux was for it, SCO had turned into the anti-Linux company.

Next Page: Holding onto legacy customers.

Legacy Customers

This time, however, Novell wasnt going to make the intraNetWare mistake. Novell has been making it loud and clear that its next-generation operating platform, OES (Open Enterprise Server), will run on both NetWare and Linux.

By doing this, Novell is also making sure that it doesnt lose its hundreds of thousands of NetWare legacy customers.

It may be expensive to support two operating-system kernels, but consider the alternative. Many operating-system companies have tried to shove new operating systems down their customers throats. It doesnt work very well.

SCO, in its Unix mode, tried for years to kill off its older Unix platform, OpenServer, in favor of the more enterprise-oriented UnixWare. They failed. Today, SCO has given up on trying to force its customers and resellers to upgrade and plans to merge the two operating systems down the road.

Microsoft has tried to do it with version after version of Windows. Now, its really pushing the issue by refusing to backport XP SP2 security improvements to older operating systems such as Windows 2000. I think this is going to blow up in Microsofts face.

Many users still use Windows 98SE and NT, even as technical support drops out from underneath them, and I cant see Microsoft trying to force W2K users to upgrade to XP working either.

I think Microsoft will only end up driving users to move to safer, open-source program alternatives such as Firefox for their browser needs and even start considering switching to other desktop operating systems such as Novells own Novell Linux Desktop.

The bottom line is that while users want improvements, they dont want radical change. So it is that I think Novell has a real chance to become a major server player again.

With OES, users can either use their reliable, improved NetWare kernel, or give the (to my way of thinking) better SuSE Linux kernel a try. In any case, though, the NetWare services theyve known and used for years remain the same. Novell is giving its customers significant system improvements without forcing them to change.

I like this approach a lot, and I strongly suspect that Novells customers—the ones who are still with it, the ones who gave up on it a long time ago and the new ones to come—are going to like it, too. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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