CEO: Novell will make 'immature' Linux robust

Novell CEO Jack Messman says Linux will serve as the migration path for the company's flagship NetWare network operating system. Messman talks about the decision to adopt Linux even though he considers it to be an immature operating system.

          At Novell's BrainShare user and partner conference in Salt Lake City, chairman and CEO Jack Messman announced that Linux would serve as the migration path for the company's flagship NetWare network operating system. Shortly after making that announcement, Messman spoke with Computerworld (US) about the decision to adopt Linux even though he considers it to be an immature operating system.

          Your plan is for NetWare 7 to be a set of services running on both the NetWare kernel and the Linux kernel. What would be the user benefit of sticking with NetWare rather than migrating to Linux?

          Linux is an immature operating system right now. It hasn't had somebody like Novell worrying about making it robust, reliable and scalable for very much time. We think we can bring that to the Linux kernel. So in the short term, the advantage to CIOs is with NetWare, they have a more mature and robust operating system. Over time, that gap will diminish.

          So you're talking about Novell making changes to the Linux kernel itself?

          When you're developing [a Linux offering], you find either glitches [that need to be fixed] or a capability you need that you can put into the kernel. We expect most of our effort is going to be in services.

          Occasionally we'll develop tools to facilitate our services, and we'll occasionally make contributions [of those tools] to the [Linux] kernel itself. If you make improvements to the kernel, you have to donate them to the community. But the open-source community doesn't have to accept them.

          Was there ever a point where you saw Linux as a threat and then decided to embrace it rather than fight it?

          We never saw it as a threat. In the last year, we saw it as an opportunity to answer the question as to what the migration path is for NetWare. Because people said, "It's a dead-end path, so maybe I ought to switch." With all the Linux on Intel boxes coming out that significantly reduce your costs, that became a viable alternative, and we started seriously looking at it. And the customers told us that's what they were thinking about.

          Kernels may have become commoditised -- Windows, Unix, Linux and NetWare. But the services, that's where the action is. That's what Linux doesn't have -- the services and support that we can bring to the table.

          Novell hasn't gotten a lot of new NetWare business lately. How do you expect this strategy to change that?

          I think this is going to help us get new NetWare business because I think the customers were worried about what their migration was. They were worried they were going to get stuck. Now they know they're not going to get stuck. They have the right to switch to Linux anytime they want. Therefore, I think they'll buy more NetWare, because it's a more robust, mature operating system with capabilities that Linux doesn't have. So we're going to put new initiatives on getting new NetWare business.

          What is the biggest misconception that the non-Novell IT community has about Novell?

          That we're legacy and that we're disappearing. We haven't done a good job marketing, so that's why they think that.

          To what do you attribute Novell's historical ineptitude at marketing?

          A lack of respect for it. We were an engineering-focused company. We never listened to the customer. We developed these great, gee-whiz products and threw them over the wall to marketing and said, "Go sell it, guys; we're done with it." We never really appreciated the value of marketing. We thought that if you created a great product, the world would beat a path to your door.

          We had to reassess the skills of everybody who worked in the marketing department. We have a natural tension between marketing and engineering that we had to set some ground rules on. In the past, engineering would bully the marketing department.

          What has been your biggest headache as CEO of Novell?

          I'd say it's dealing with a very soft IT market and having to continually re-adjust the staffing of the company to deal with the soft demand.

          Secondly would be the cultural clash that takes place between consulting and product people. Ultimately, they learn to appreciate one another. But initially there's a clash of approach. IBM had to go through it; others are going through it.

          In a press conference last week you said, "I am unwilling to commit until I am damn sure I can deliver -- unlike some of my predecessors." Can you elaborate on what you were referring to?

          I think the company has had a history of saying things that they didn't deliver on, whether it be a new product or the timing of a new product. I don't practice that way. I want people to come to expect that when we say something, we're going to deliver on it. That's the new Novell: We're going to deliver on what we say we're going to deliver.

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