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Linux Inside Novell

Novell has been involved with Linux for just a short time — it made its major acquisitions in the area only a few years ago — but the company seems to be trying to make up for lost time. Its deal with Microsoft is controversial, but the company’s new CEO says that customers stand to benefit greatly. Here’s an inside look at how Novell sells Linux.

Originally published in the February 2007 print edition of Linux Magazine.

Novell has been involved with Linux for just a short time — it made its major acquisitions in the area only a few years ago — but the company seems to be trying to make up for lost time. More accurately, Novell wants to accelerate its plans and grow into a major Linux force.

Although a recent patent deal with Microsoft has put Novell in the spotlight — and for some in the community, in the hotseat — crafting an arrangement with the Redmond behemoth is far from its only plan for Linux. In addition to adopting Linux internally, the company has also been eager to gain a stronger foothold in the datacenter and to beef up its offerings in virtualization, identity management, and security.

Whether Novell can truly be a catalyst for making Windows and Linux play happily together remains to be seen, but it’s an effort worth watching.

Novell sparked to life in 1979, choosing headquarters in Provo, Utah over the already tech-heavy Silicon Valley. In its earliest incarnation, Novell was a hardware developer, and a struggling one at that, losing two cofounders in its first few years.

By the mid-1980s, the company’s outlook was much better. Novell introduced NetWare, a multi-platform network operating system, began focusing on creating its own standards, and put considerable energy into file and print services. For a few decades, it went on an acquisition spree, picking up companies like SilverStream Software and Cambridge Technology Partners to boost its strength in application development and consulting.

Novell’s Linux era began in 2003 when the company bought Ximian, developer of software such as Mono, Evolution, and Red Carpet, and then scooped up Linux vendor SUSE a few months later. As a major retail Linux distribution, SUSE was a plum buy for Novell, giving the company not just a chance to make its mark in the datacenter, but also to bring in some of the community’s best engineers.

“Clearly, as part of the acquisition of Ximian and SUSE, the drive there wasn’t just for products, but also for engineering resources,” said Debra Anderson, Novell’s CIO. “With Linux, we have those resources in place to quickly see what functional gaps need to be addressed.”

Novell began integrating Linux into its internal operations slightly before the acquisitions, Anderson noted. “We saw an opportunity to save money in adopting open source,” she said. The Ximian and SUSE buys made it even easier to get Linux onto Novell desktops and in its data centers.

“We wanted to experience what adoption would look like, and develop best practices,” said Anderson. “We have slightly more than half the company on the Linux desktop, and we learned a lot along the way.” One lesson was that Novell realized it wouldn’t be beneficial to go Linux-only, she added.

The company has internal teams that collaborate with external parties that use other operating systems, and Anderson said having a heterogeneous environment makes more sense than choosing Linux and shutting out all others. “We’ve seen incredible performance gains, and[ better] security, but we never thought we’d be 100 percent Linux,” she said. “It just wouldn’t make sense for some of our employees.”

After the acquisitions, Novell continued development on SUSE Linux, and release version 10.1 as freely-available open source software. The company also created a services product, Novell eNterprise, that ported some NetWare services over to SUSE Linux Enterprise Server. A major release in 2004 was Novell Linux Desktop, based on Ximian and SUSE products.

The release of Linux Desktop was a watershed moment for the company, said Nat Friedman, Novell Chief Technology and Strategy Officer for Linux in Business. “That release represented years of effort from Ximian and SUSE and Novell, and it all came together,” he recalled. “We believe it’s the first Linux desktop that’s generally usable by the everyday worker. Our goal was to go after people who don’t need a lot of applications and make Linux available to them, not just to the engineering department.”

In 2006, Novell released SUSE Linux Enterprise 10, a series of products that offers virtualization based on the Xen hypervisor. The use of virtualization is a big deal, Friedman noted, because as computer are getting more powerful, virtualization becomes an important way to run applications in the datacenter. “This is a major trend in computing,” he said. “We really want to move toward optimizing our virtualization offerings.”

Another notable project currently led by Novell is Mono, designed to create a set of .NET tools that can run on Windows, Linux, Unix, Mac OS X, Solaris, and FreeBSD. The project’s founder, Miguel de Icaza, notes that the newest release of Mono 1.2 includes some very visible areas of improvement. Specifically, there’s the addition of Windows.Forms, an API that permits Windows graphical user interface (GUI) developers to bring their applications to Linux, de Icaza said.

“Mono used to have its own GUI API, and also provided server capabilities with Mono 1.0,” he added. “With 1.2, we have completed the coverage and now we also offer the support for this popular Windows API.”

Also, Mono used to be limited to a handful of platforms, but there’s now support for all of the SUSE platforms, as well as others like IBM mainframes, Sun’s SPARC, and PowerPC. Mono’s performance is now comparable to other virtual machines, and memory consumption is low compared to Java and Python for equivalent desktop applications.

As Novell marches toward Mono 2.0, the work will be done in stages, with server components addressed first. “In marketing speak, we are entering a tornado situation with Mono,” said de Icaza. “There is a lot of demand for specific features that need to go into Mono that people want to port their applications or to simplify their development experience.” Juggling the priorities of the project has become more complicated, he added, and even though the community is growing rapidly, Novell hasn’t yet found a way of boosting the numbers of developers working full-time on Mono.

Patent Pending

The recent deal with Microsoft is in essence a joint patent agreement, although the two companies have also noted that they’re going to collaborate on products as well. Both firms have noted that the partnership is designed to increase interoperability between open source and proprietary software.

However, just after the deal was struck, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer declared that Linux uses Microsoft intellectual property, which fanned the flames of an already heated discussion about whether Novell had made the right move. But Friedman believes that there’s misunderstanding in the community over the agreement. “Some extremists say we shouldn’t deal with Microsoft, but Microsoft is acknowledging that Linux has a role in the enterprise,” he said.

A major initiative that gets overlooked, Friedman added, is Novell’s role with the Open Invention Network (OIN), an intellectual property group formed by Novell, Red Hat, Philips, Sony, NEC, and IBM to create protection for Linux. “The idea is that you’ve got this group that develops armaments to protect open source,” he said. “If any user is ever sued for patent distribution, then the OIN will countersue. It’s like the star wars initiative, or an insurance policy.” IBM is also an integrated strategic alliance partner with Novell, and believes that company’s strategies with indemnification, as well as product development, make it important in key markets.

“If you look at how incredibly strong the growth rate for Linux is, you’ll see it’s a phenomenon,” said Scott Handy, IBM Vice President of Worldwide Linux and Open Source. “With servers, Linux is growing five times faster than Windows. Even Microsoft came to the inevitable conclusion that Linux is unstoppable, and that’s why they made the deal with Novell.”

The Microsoft Question

Despite its enthusiasm for Linux and executive comments about supporting the open source community, Novell is likely to have to answer one big question for the future: can it work with Microsoft without drawing too much ire from the open source world? For some in the community, the answer already seems clear.

Calling Novell a “parasite” that takes value from the community, open source leader Bruce Perens has blasted the company with an open letter online, and drawn more than 3,000 signatures at the time of this writing. Perens believes that Novell could suffer a sustainability problem from the agreement.

“Novell has not become a successful Linux distribution,” he said. “This patent deal is not going to make them more successful. It not as if businesses want to be blackmailed into using a product with the threat of a patent lawsuit should they use anything else.”

Another blow was struck to Novell just a few days before Christmas, when Samba developer Jeremy Allison quit the company in protest over the Microsoft deal, opting to take his talents to Google instead. In a resignation letter leaked to open source watchdog site Groklaw, Allison wrote that he believed the patent agreement was a mistake, and would hurt the company in the future.

“[ M] y main issue with this deal is I believe that even if it does not violate the letter of the license, it violates the intent of the GPL license the Samba code is released under, which is to treat all recipients of the code equally,” he wrote.

Much Ado About Nothing?

On a more temperate note, enterprise users are likely to be left wondering if all this sound and fury will end up signifying nothing, or if such criticism will affect the company’s dealings with developers. In many cases, users will probably be less concerned about defecting programmers and more focused on what the partnership means for customers, said George Weiss, Vice President and Distinguished Analyst of the Gartner Group.

“The main issue is Novell’s future in the data center,” he noted. “They’re going to be focusing on capacity planning and visualization, what is what users want. Any collaboration in bringing those worlds together will be looked at by users as a positive.”

If Novell can make good on its promise to do more around integrated patch management, identity management, and security, as well as desktop Linux, then the company could differentiate itself from its major competitor, Red Hat, according to Weiss.

“Some of their strengths will probably revolve around existing legacy software for a mixed source environment, but with proprietary products as well,” he added. That blend, if it addresses security, backup, recovery, and provisioning, could put Novell in a better position when vendor selection time comes during IT meetings at enterprises.

“They’re hoping they can provide a soup-to-nuts datacenter strategy that will address many of the needs that will be emerging, particularly around x86 technology,” Weiss said. “We’ll see what emerges.”

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