Microsoft, Novell Make Peace over Linux

The competitors announce sweeping collaboration plans, including an agreement to protect each other's customers against patent infringement claims.

Microsoft and Novell announced on Nov. 2 a set of broad collaboration agreements to build, market and support a series of new solutions that will make Novell and Microsoft products work better together.

Perhaps the biggest news is that Novell and Microsoft announced an agreement to provide each others customers with patent coverage for their respective products. These agreements will be in place until at least 2012.

"They said it couldnt be done. This is a new model and a true evolution of our relationship that we think customers will immediately find compelling because it delivers practical value by bringing two of their most important platform investments closer together," said Steve Ballmer, Microsofts CEO, at the news conference in San Francisco.

"Were excited to work with Novell, whose strengths include its heritage as a mixed-source company. Resolving our patent issues enables a combined focus on virtualization and Web services management to create new opportunities for our companies and our customers," Ballmer said.

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According to a Microsoft news release, "The patent cooperation agreement enables Microsoft and Novell to give customers assurance of protection against patent infringement claims. It gives customers confidence that the technologies they use and deploy in their environments are compliant with the two companies patents."

As part of this agreement, Microsoft will provide a "covenant" not to assert its patent rights against customers who have purchased SLES (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server) or other covered products from Novell, and Novell will provide an identical covenant to customers who have a licensed version of Windows or other covered products from Microsoft.

"Both companies had to think creatively about how to create an intellectual property bridge between the two worlds of open source and proprietary software," said Brad Smith, senior vice president and general counsel of Microsoft. "This bridge is built on respect for the innovations of each company and the open-source community, and a passion for what we can deliver for our customers together."

Additionally, the two long-warring companies will create a joint research facility at which Microsoft and Novell technical experts will architect and test new software solutions and work with customers and the community to build and support these technologies. At this center, developers will focuses on three major technical areas.

The first of these is virtualization. The companies will jointly develop a compelling virtualization offering for Linux and Windows. During the press conference in San Francisco announcing this deal, Jeff Jaffe, Novells chief technology officer, said the result will be to enable Windows to run under Linux and Linux to run under Windows.

As Novell has long worked to bring Xen virtualization to SUSE Linux and Microsoft recently announced that it would use Xen for its own server virtualization, it appears virtualization is one area where the companies have strong coordination.

The companies will also work on managing Web services on both physical and virtual servers. However, while the press conference centered on Web services, its clear that the two are also working on making it easy to manage mixed Windows and SUSE Linux Enterprise environments. In particular, the unlikely pair will work on ways to confederate Microsoft Active Directory with Novell eDirectory and vice versa.

The two are also working together to bridge the gap between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.orgs document formats. While Sun Microsystems is usually the main company associated with OpenOffice, Novell has also been a major contributor to its code. Novell and Microsoft said they will work on ways to translate and improve interoperability between Microsofts Open XML and OpenOffices ODF (OpenDocument format).

As part of the agreement, Novell will pay a running royalty to Microsoft for use of its patents in SUSE Linux. Both companies, as Smith mentioned, have large patent portfolios. No mention, however, was made of Microsoft paying a royalty to Novell for the use of its patents.

Ballmer said that, in effect, Novell will act as a proxy for its customers, but only for Novells customers. This leaves the impression that Microsoft might consider legal action against other Linux companies, such as Red Hat, that dont have such deals.

In addition, Ballmer said Microsoft would not use its patent portfolio against any individual, nonprofit open-source software developer or against any OpenSUSE programmer whose code ended up in SUSE Linux.

Under the agreement, Microsoft will also officially recommend SUSE Linux Enterprise to customers who want Windows and Linux solutions. As Ballmer said, however, if someone asks him what operating system he or she should get, hes going to say, "Windows! Windows! Windows!" But if that person insisted on Linux, then he would recommend Novells SUSE Linux, he said.

As part of this deal Microsoft will distribute 75,000 coupons for SLES maintenance and support, so that customers can benefit from the use of an interoperable version of Linux with patent coverage as well as the collaborative work between the two companies.

The two companies have not worked out all their differences; for example, the WordPerfect lawsuit remains unresolved.

However, the message at the news conference was positive. "Too often technology companies ask their customers to adapt to them. Today we are adapting to our customers," said Ron Hovsepian, president and CEO of Novell. Both companies said they had made these broad agreements because of the demands of enterprise customers.

"Microsoft and Novell are enabling customers to take advantage of each others products where it makes sense in their enterprise infrastructure. We jointly believe that our business and patent agreements make it possible to offer the highest level of interoperability with the assurance that both our companies stand behind these solutions," Hovsepian said.

Hovsepian revealed that he was the one who had opened the negotiations with Microsoft. He made the first moves in April 2006, he said, not long after he became Novells COO. The deal took several months to put together. The bulk of this time, according to Smith, was spent on resolving the legal issues.

It should be noted that while the potential for open-source patent lawsuits has long been recognized, none of any significance have so far been filed.

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