Novell Bets on Linux

Ximian acquisition could be the start of a new era.

When Novell announced its purchase of the desktop Linux company Ximian two weeks ago, it was one of the biggest stories to come out of LinuxWorld Expo. The move was significant and intriguing, since Novell didnt buy software, per se, but instead bought into ideas that could prove pivotal to its future.

Ximians products—the Evolution messaging application, Ximian Desktop 2 environment, Red Carpet management software and Mono, the Linux-based implementation of Microsofts .Net platform—were developed and distributed as free software, so Novell didnt have to pay for the code to market it. What Novell got for its money is the opportunity to exert control over the code by directing its development.

With the market share of its NetWare network operating system a fraction of what

it once was, Novell, along with industry titans such as IBM, Oracle and, to a lesser extent, Sun, is betting itll be better off tying its future to a platform owned by no one in particular than chasing after the one operating system intended to rule them all. To that end, Novell has been porting its flagship services to Linux, and the company has announced its plans to ship NetWare 7 as a set of services made to run equally as well atop the Linux or NetWare kernel.

The Ximian pickup brings Novell significant street cred in the open-source software world, as Ximian founders and new Novell employees Miguel de Icaza and Nat Friedman are well-connected and highly regarded as leaders in the free-software community.

For Ximian, becoming part of Novell means more development resources; a large marketing, sales and support apparatus; and, most important, being thought of as a trusted name in the enterprise IT world. Although NetWare market share has slid over the years, Novell enjoys a base of some 90 million licensed NetWare seats connected to 4 million servers worldwide.

Novells server-oriented product offerings and Ximians desktop-targeted pieces overlap little and should be able to mesh well, enabling Novell to present current and prospective customers with a product suite that stretches from the back end to the client.

With the prospect of a sturdy foothold in the emerging world of desktop Linux, Novell has a chance to show off the integration of its directory, file, print and messaging services into client systems in which these services can enjoy better than second-class citizenship.

While I believe Novells moves are promising, the company faces plenty of challenges. For one, theres the question of whether Novell intends to produce its own Linux distribution.

When Microsoft Watchs Mary Jo Foley asked Novell Vice Chairman Chris Stone whether a Novell-rolled Linux distribution was in the cards, Stone answered in the affirmative, adding that while specifics have yet to be determined, Novell plans "to cover Linux from the desktop to the server."

I think Novell should hold off, at least in the beginning, on shipping its own distribution and instead work with established Linux partners such as SuSE and Red Hat.

One of Ximians biggest strengths as a desktop Linux enabler is that it has built its products to work atop established Linux distributions, rather than offering one of its own. This has preserved choice for Ximian customers and has reduced the level of vendor commitment required for a company to buy Ximians wares.

With the latest release of Ximians desktop environment, I was disappointed that Ximian had cut its supported distributions down to Red Hat and SuSE. Novell, which already offers its Linux products as add-ons for Red Hat and SuSE, might do better to use its resources to expand the number of distributions it supports rather than focus on building its own.

Building and maintaining a Linux distribution is a lot of work, as is developing the sort of ISV and IHV relationships and certifications necessary for an enterprise-suitable offering.

A new Novell may be able to position itself as a top-to-bottom infrastructure vendor, but its success will depend on maintaining the sort of flexibility and openness that made this Linux play attractive to begin with.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at