The Wizard Moved Out

 
 
By Joseph C. Panettieri  |  Posted 2001-03-05
 
 
 

The Wizard Moved Out


Meet Drew Major—for the second time.

Most Novell watchers call Major the "Father of NetWare"—the operating system that gave rise to PC networks in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Unlike high-profile programmers like Lotus Notes veteran Ray Ozzie, Major is a technical wizard who typically works behind the curtains, while marketing executives occupy center stage.

After a 20-year run at Novell, Major intends to build another software empire, this time as chief technology officer of Volera Inc. Even though Major has a new address, hes in very familiar territory. Novell launched Volera in February as an operating company that offers Internet caching and content management services. Voleras software speeds Net performance and could pave the way for IP-based video services. Accenture and Nortel Networks are expected to take equity positions in Volera by May, and Novell hopes to launch an IPO for Volera as soon as late 2002.

The strategy sounds very promising, but Novell has stumbled down similar brick roads before. History shows that each time Novell attempts to step beyond NetWare, a house of horrors seemingly falls from the sky. Novells AppWare, DR-DOS, WordPerfect and UnixWare initiatives all got squashed in the mid-1990s. And a 1997 deal with Netscape Communications to launch an Internet company, known as Novonyx, was a major dud that Novell later reabsorbed.

Another Emerald City


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Another Emerald City? Novell vows that Volera will be different. For starters, Volera says the Internet caching market will be a $10.4 billion opportunity by 2004. Nearly a dozen server companies—from Compaq Computer to Toshiba—sell caching appliances that use Voleras technology. And since the caching code isnt married to NetWare, Volera can succeed even if Novells server operating-system sales continue to slide.

Voleras alliance strategy is rather simple: The company plans to drive its caching solutions through server manufacturers, Web hosting companies and network equipment makers. Early customers include AT&T, Datek Online, Dell Computer and Southwest Airlines.

Pull Back the Curtain Of course, it doesnt hurt to have Major working behind the scenes. Current and former Novell employees praise his ability to turn complex technical ideas into business solutions.

"Drew is the only guy who could have each hand on two different keyboards, type intelligently, and carry on a conversation all at the same time," quips former Novell executive VP Richard King, now president of Big Planet, a service provider. "Hes great at understanding and developing very complicated technical solutions."

Adds Chris Stone, a former senior VP at Novell, who now runs Tilion Inc., "Drew is a gem. He spewed out technology ideas faster than a Clinton pardon."

If Major has mixed feelings about leaving Novell, he isnt saying so. Major points out that he will continue to serve Novell in a consulting role, and many Novell veterans are among his closest friends. Allies include former chairman and CEO Ray Noorda, who lives a few blocks away from Major.

Noorda gets much of the credit for building Novell, but it was Major and two other software developers—Dale Neibaur and Kyle Powell—who pieced together NetWare nearly 20 years ago. The trio became known as "The SuperSet."

"With Ray on strategy and Drew on technology, the early days of networking had a dynamic duo at the helm," says William Donahoo, a Novell marketing veteran who has known Major since 1991.

Noorda and many of his former lieutenants left Novell during the mid-1990s. Noordas immediate replacement, Hewlett-Packard veteran Robert Frankenberg, sold off many of the struggling businesses that Novell had acquired under Noorda. By the time current chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt arrived in April 1997, Novell was late to the Internet and losing momentum in the classic channel.

Theres No Place Like


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Theres No Place Like Home The one constant through Novells good times and the its recent struggles has been Major.

Longtime associates say creative freedom, rather than money, is what drives Major. "He has plenty of money and I dont think a financial upside motivates him much," says Novell veteran King. "He wants to have free rein to develop his technology."

Plenty of companies have courted Major over the years. Sources say Microsoft wanted to recruit him after merger discussions between it and Novell fell apart in the early 1990s. Under the proposed deal, Major would have worked closely with Banyan Vines veteran Jim Allchin and Digital VMS pioneer David Cutler, according to a former Windows NT developer at Microsoft. Major ultimately stayed at Novell, while Allchin and Cutler went on to lead major portions of Micro- softs Windows NT initiative.

"Sure, I know Drew Major," says Microsoft group VP Allchin, via e-mail. "Unfortunately, I typically dont comment on people in the industry. Sorry."

Major shifted his focus away from NetWare in 1997—around the same time that Microsoft overtook Novell in the server arena. "Caching has been my baby for about four years," says Major.

Ironically, one of Novells iffy acquisitions, the 1993 purchase of Fluent for $17.5 million, played a small but important role in Novells caching push.

Fluent specialized in video servers for PC networks, but the companys software never gained widespread use. Even so, Major believed that caching systems and video services would be a killer combo on the Internet. "[Fluent] was part of what originally got me interested in caching," says Major. "Volera wont be the Web server or the video server. But well be the infrastructure that stores the data and replicates it."

Goodbye, Aunt Em


Goodbye, Aunt Em Novell moved its caching development effort into a separate division about nine months ago. The company quickly grabbed about 17 percent of the caching market, according to Novells internal estimates. However, Novells $1 billion networking business largely overshadowed the caching push, which generated less than $10 million in annual sales for Novell last year. "It was apparent that we needed to [spin off] from Novell," says Major.

Investors and partners certainly agree. Novells annual revenue fell 9 percent in 2000, the companys stock is trading near a 52-week low and CEO Schmidt isnt predicting any quick fixes.

Plenty of companies still want to work with Novell on new projects, but they dont necessarily want to pump money into the ailing networking giant. Even Major concedes that point: "Nortel said they wanted a piece of the [caching] technology without [buying] a piece of Novell."

After months of rumors, Novell announced the Volera spin-off plan on Feb. 2. Accenture and Nortel vowed to support the effort from day one, and Exodus Communications recently agreed to evangelize Voleras Content Exchange service to its worldwide customers. The alliance should give Exodus data-center customers much faster Internet performance.

Ironically, former Novell CTO Kanwal Rekhi was an angel investor in Exodus. Major says he bumped into Rekhi about two years ago, during a birthday party for Noorda.

However, Major says he didnt call on Rekhi to score the Exodus deal. Instead, Volera worked the negotiations through GlobalCenter, a Global Crossing subsidiary that Exodus acquired in September for $6.5 billion.

A Happy Ending


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A Happy Ending? Spinning off Volera should play to Majors strengths. Longtime friends and former business associates say Major isnt much for managing big development organizations, and tends to work best with small implementation teams. That bodes well for Volera, where the entire company has fewer than 200 employees.

"Drew is a unique guy and has a tremendous amount of passion and enthusiasm," says Donahoo. "He believes in what he is doing to the core of his soul."

Nobody ever questioned Majors heart or his brains. But Novell will need to show some courage over the next few months, as Volera attempts to build an Emerald City of its own.

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