Novell has been involved with Linux for just a short time â€” it made its major acquisitions in the area only a few years ago â€” but the company seems to be trying to make up for lost time. Its deal with Microsoft is controversial, but the companyâ€™s new CEO says that customers stand to benefit greatly. Hereâ€™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 â€” it made its major acquisitions in the area only a few years ago â€” 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 â€” and for some in the community, in the hotseat â€” 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 itâ€™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 companyâ€™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.
Novellâ€™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 communityâ€™s best engineers.
â€œClearly, as part of the acquisition of Ximian and SUSE, the drive there wasnâ€™t just for products, but also for engineering resources,â€ said Debra Anderson, Novellâ€™s CIO. â€œWith Linux, we have those resources in place to quickly see what functional gaps need to be addressed.â€
Novell began integrating Linux into its internal operations slightly before the acquisitions, Anderson noted. â€œWe saw an opportunity to save money in adopting open source,â€ she said. The Ximian and SUSE buys made it even easier to get Linux onto Novell desktops and in its data centers.
â€œWe wanted to experience what adoption would look like, and develop best practices,â€ said Anderson. â€œWe have slightly more than half the company on the Linux desktop, and we learned a lot along the way.â€ One lesson was that Novell realized it wouldnâ€™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. â€œWeâ€™ve seen incredible performance gains, and[ better] security, but we never thought weâ€™d be 100 percent Linux,â€ she said. â€œIt just wouldnâ€™t make sense for some of our employees.â€
Novellâ€™s Software Suite
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server
Open Enterprise Server
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. â€œThat release represented years of effort from Ximian and SUSE and Novell, and it all came together,â€ he recalled. â€œWe believe itâ€™s the first Linux desktop thatâ€™s generally usable by the everyday worker. Our goal was to go after people who donâ€™t need a lot of applications and make Linux available to them, not just to the engineering department.â€
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. â€œThis is a major trend in computing,â€ he said. â€œWe really want to move toward optimizing our virtualization offerings.â€
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 projectâ€™s founder, Miguel de Icaza, notes that the newest release of Mono 1.2 includes some very visible areas of improvement. Specifically, thereâ€™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.
â€œMono used to have its own GUI API, and also provided server capabilities with Mono 1.0,â€ he added. â€œWith 1.2, we have completed the coverage and now we also offer the support for this popular Windows API.â€
Also, Mono used to be limited to a handful of platforms, but thereâ€™s now support for all of the SUSE platforms, as well as others like IBM mainframes, Sunâ€™s SPARC, and PowerPC. Monoâ€™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. â€œIn marketing speak, we are entering a tornado situation with Mono,â€ said de Icaza. â€œThere 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.â€ Juggling the priorities of the project has become more complicated, he added, and even though the community is growing rapidly, Novell hasnâ€™t yet found a way of boosting the numbers of developers working full-time on Mono.
The recent deal with Microsoft is in essence a joint patent agreement, although the two companies have also noted that theyâ€™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 thereâ€™s misunderstanding in the community over the agreement. â€œSome extremists say we shouldnâ€™t deal with Microsoft, but Microsoft is acknowledging that Linux has a role in the enterprise,â€ he said.
A major initiative that gets overlooked, Friedman added, is Novellâ€™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. â€œThe idea is that youâ€™ve got this group that develops armaments to protect open source,â€ he said. â€œIf any user is ever sued for patent distribution, then the OIN will countersue. Itâ€™s like the star wars initiative, or an insurance policy.â€ IBM is also an integrated strategic alliance partner with Novell, and believes that companyâ€™s strategies with indemnification, as well as product development, make it important in key markets.
â€œIf you look at how incredibly strong the growth rate for Linux is, youâ€™ll see itâ€™s a phenomenon,â€ said Scott Handy, IBM Vice President of Worldwide Linux and Open Source. â€œWith servers, Linux is growing five times faster than Windows. Even Microsoft came to the inevitable conclusion that Linux is unstoppable, and thatâ€™s why they made the deal with Novell.â€
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 â€œparasiteâ€ 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.
â€œNovell has not become a successful Linux distribution,â€ he said. â€œThis 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.â€
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.
â€œ[ 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,â€ 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 companyâ€™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.
â€œThe main issue is Novellâ€™s future in the data center,â€ he noted. â€œTheyâ€™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.â€
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.
â€œSome of their strengths will probably revolve around existing legacy software for a mixed source environment, but with proprietary products as well,â€ 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.
â€œTheyâ€™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,â€ Weiss said. â€œWeâ€™ll see what emerges.â€
An Interview with Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian
Linux Magazine: Youâ€™ve said that virtualization was the key to the Microsoft collaboration. Do you think Novell and Microsoft would have eventually partnered anyway, without virtualization? Why was that technology so key?
Ron Hovsepian: I initiated the conversation with Microsoft with a discussion around what we could do for our customers. In the course of our discussions, we concluded that what customers really care about is interoperability, and making all these systems in their environment work together. And whatâ€™s the future of interoperability? Virtualization. Questions of interoperability have been around since the beginning of IT. But virtualization changes the interoperability discussion. Now the questions are not about protocol and standards, although those remain important. Itâ€™s about optimizing a hosting environment to run another operating system virtually. This gives customers tremendous flexibility to chose the system they want to use for various tasks, without having to worry about customization, application support and so on.
In our technical agreement with Microsoft, weâ€™ve identified virtualization and management of physical and virtual environments as two key areas for cooperation. We want to make it easy for customers to run and manage Windows virtualized on Linux and Linux virtualized on Windows. Itâ€™s possible we might have reached a partnership around interoperability with Microsoft without virtualization. But with virtualization, it became even more compelling. It is the focus on helping customers â€” whether they primarily use Microsoft or Novell platforms â€” that made this a win for both companies.
LM: Are there any unique benefits to doing virtualization on Linux?
RH: Well, first Iâ€™d tell you that SUSE Linux Enterprise is unique- we were the first Linux distribution to ship with an integrated Xen hypervisor, and weâ€™re still the only Linux distribution in the market with Xen integration. This is an important accomplishment. Even our new partners at Microsoft havenâ€™t completely figured out how to integrate a hypervisor into Windows: their first release of the Windows Hypervisor- also known as Viridian- is scheduled for sometime late in 2007.
The benefits of integrating a Xen hypervisor into Linux are multiple. First, using Xen and SUSE Linux Enterprise offers customers the ability to remedy issues relating to resource utilization, efficiency, scalability and manageability. When you add in virtual machines on commodity hardware, then our customers can realize new levels of flexibility and agility in their environments at a lower total cost of ownership. Finally, Xen and Linux offer new capabilities to scale out quickly without impacting performance, which means you can integrate disparate racks of compute and storage servers into a powerful, effective enterprise platform.
LM: Thereâ€™s been a lot of reactions to Ballmerâ€™s recent comments about intellectual property and indemnity issues. Do you think Novell customers will be influenced by those comments, or about indemnity in general? How is Novell handling that situation?
RH: From the beginning of our association with Linux, weâ€™ve been very consistent in our position on IP and Linux. When SCO challenged Linux over copyrights, we stated publicly that we didnâ€™t believe there was Unix code in Linux, we fought SCO in court â€” that process is ongoing â€” and we offered indemnification for our Linux customers against copyright claims. Weâ€™ve made a pledge to use our own patents in defense of our open source offerings. We were a founding member of the Open Invention Network, which is making patents available to open source developers. This latest move with Microsoft â€” the signing of mutual covenants not to sue each othersâ€™ customers â€” is just one more step in that process. With this patent deal, we have not admitted- and Microsoft agrees we did not admit- that Linux infringes any Microsoft patents. Weâ€™re simply removing the issue as an area of customer concern.
Many customers donâ€™t appear to have concerns about IP and Linux. But others do. By this agreement with Microsoft, we simply take the patent issue off the table so that customers donâ€™t have to worry about it.
LM: What do you feel is the strongest aspect of the partnership with Microsoft? What will customers benefit from the most?
RH: Interoperability. All the pieces of this deal are designed to promote interoperability. We want to make it easy for customers to plug Linux into their environment- whether in the data center or on the desktop- and know that itâ€™ll work well with what theyâ€™ve got and that theyâ€™ll be able to manage the whole system effectively. The technical cooperation, the business agreement to have Microsoft distribute SUSE Linux Enterprise certifications and the patent agreement- are all pointed squarely at interoperability. We will have failed if we donâ€™t make Linux and Windows interoperability seamless for customers.
LM: You noted earlier in 2006 that Novell was attempting to simplify the business. How has that effort been going? In what ways has that focus changed the companyâ€™s operations?
RH: Our focus is to align strategy, business model and operational processes. We continue to move the needle forward on this. We have sharpened our strategy. We will be the leader in enterprise wide Linux and security and systems management services required for mixed IT environments. On the business model front, we are changing the management focus of the company by shifting from a geographic focus to a product focus for reporting results. This will bring increased levels of market focus and alignment in our efforts to drive our business along product lines.
Operationally, we have underway three important initiatives to redesign our business. First, on the sales front, we are undertaking a major shift from direct to indirect coverage and capabilities. We are building out a world class infrastructure for web and telesales which will focus on our renewal activities, freeing up our direct field force to find new customers. Weâ€™re investing in new dedicated specialization roles and training of our sales force. Finally, we are increasing our investment in a targeted set of global strategic partners with whom we can go to market within our strategic categories. Second, we have begun the process for improving the cost and productivity balance between on and offshore R& D locations. Weâ€™re investing in overlapping, offshoring teams to eventually assume functions once handled in more expensive environments. Weâ€™ve also improved our product life-cycle management process. Third, and finally, weâ€™re improving back office functions. We believe moving to a service center model with standard processes will yield positive results.
LM: What are the areas that Novell plans to address in the future? Identity management and network authentication?
RH: Our focus is on fulfilling the strategic goal I just mentioned: being the leader in enterprise wide Linux and security and systems management services required for mixed IT environments. Identity management is clearly one piece of this. Securing heterogeneous environments- including virtualized environments- is critical. But weâ€™re actively building out a broader management story. We recently announced our data center automation initiative. This is a desktop-to-data center management story, a comprehensive set of solutions which orchestrate the management of virtual machines, high-performance computing and other IT resources. It covers the entire enterprise IT environment, from Linux to UNIX to Windows. This kind of management is critical to the interoperability of Linux with other environments.
Of course, weâ€™ll continue to invest in and develop the best Linux distribution on the market. Weâ€™ll continue our active participation in projects like openSUSE, OpenOffice.org, Mono, the Linux kernel, Xen, SAMBA and many more. We are fully committed to Linux and open source and to being a constructive player in the open source community.
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