Novell and Red Hat: a lesson in styling contrasts

The two enterprise Linux vendors have different approaches, says Neil McAllister

Enterprise Linux customers typically pick from just two options. Although HP’s decision to support Debian could widen the playing field, the choice really comes down to Novell and Red Hat. It’s worth comparing the two in terms of product offerings and overall style.

When we speak of Novell, of course, we mean “New Novell”. By the mid-1990s, “Old Novell”, which made its fortune in the 1980s as the premier provider of PC networking software, was on the wane. Poor management and corporate arrogance had frustrated and alienated many of Old Novell’s core customers, allowing Microsoft to sweep in and dominate its traditional core markets. But then, as it teetered on the brink of irrelevance, Old Novell reinvented itself as New Novell, a premier provider of Linux software, with the aim of taking the fight back to Microsoft’s doorstep.

The reigning king penguin of Linux, of course, is Red Hat. Although the media and the vendor community like to speak of Novell and Red Hat as peers, Red Hat is far and away the market leader in enterprise Linux. In order to win some of that share for itself, New Novell has to differentiate its offering. It has done so in several ways — some tangible, others less so.

For starters, RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) is clearly Red Hat’s flagship. Most Red Hat customer engagements begin with Linux, and many end there. On the other hand, SLES (Suse Linux Enterprise Server) is functionally equivalent to RHEL in most respects, but Novell has positioned it differently. In many ways, New Novell’s flagship is not Linux but Open Enterprise Server, a product that provides Old Novell’s well-respected file, print, directory and network management services using SLES as its foundation (instead of Novell’s legacy NetWare OS).

With its latest software revision, however, Novell has begun to differentiate Suse Linux in other ways. One is on the desktop: Red Hat concentrates on enterprise servers, whereas Novell offers a fully supported workstation alternative in SLED 10 (Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop). Second, Novell has put its full support behind Xen virtualisation, touting it as a major feature of SLES 10, but Red Hat has been hesitant about formally adopting the technology.

These are interesting differentiators, but their value is debatable. Virtualisation is a hot but nascent market, and Xen, a largely unproven technology, isn’t the only option. And desktop Linux has been queued up on the tarmac for years — who knows when it will really take off? Meanwhile, with the acquisition of JBoss, Red Hat has made arguably the more market-savvy move, adding value at higher levels of the enterprise application stack.

But Novell and Red Hat are different in an even subtler way. Call it corporate culture or call it style, the two companies present very different faces.

Consider the recent LinuxWorld Expo in San Francisco. Novell had a large booth near the entrance of the show floor, where it played host to various partners. Novell representatives were in abundance, sitting on conference panels and offering hands-on tutorial sessions. Special sessions recapped the best content from Novell’s own BrainShare conference.

Red Hat, on the other hand, was a no-show. A cocktail party it sponsored at a nearby hotel was well attended, but there was little in terms of company messages or media, customer or investor outreach; not even a promotional flyer.

Likewise, as a member of the technology media, barely a week goes by that I don’t receive some kind of email release or contact from Novell or its representatives. By comparison, I hear from Red Hat maybe once every six months.

In short, Novell is well aware that it is the New Novell. New Novell’s success depends on engaging the market, getting its message out to customers, winning developer support and building community — and it knows it. It may not be the market leader today, but it wants to go where its customers lead it.

Increasingly, however, Red Hat is aware of the fact that it is The One and Only Red Hat. Red Hat is holding the cards, and the customers will come to Red Hat.

Old Novell used to think that way.

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