Novell tools entrepreneur close behind Ghost hero

When it comes to the grand tradition of number eight fencing wire, tinkering in the shed and Kiwi Boy Does Good, Murray Haszard stands out for the sale of his Ghost disk-cloning utility to Symantec for $US27.5 million. But he's not alone. There are other New Zealanders quietly achieving on the international stage, and John Baird is one of them.

When it comes to the grand tradition of number eight fencing wire, tinkering in the shed and Kiwi Boy Does Good, Murray Haszard stands out for the sale of his Ghost disk-cloning utility to Symantec for $US27.5 million.

But he's not alone. There are other New Zealanders quietly achieving on the international stage, and John Baird is one of them.

Baird has developed a set of utility tools for Novell's NetWare operating system that are being snapped up via his Web site (www.jrbsoftware.com).

Baird, who has managed the NetWare network at Lincoln University since 1988, discovered a lack of automated tools.

"We were using it in a student environment, creating a set of user codes for every class that wanted to use the computers."

Baird discovered it was quite arduous to create lots of users and then delete them again at the end of the term. Novell's tools were all menu-based, and didn't lend themselves to automation. So Baird wrote his own.

"I started writing my own tools to do all those things we needed to do, like getting a printout of user codes for a class group."

Initially the programs Baird wrote were, by his own admission, "rough stuff", lacking in refinements like help functions and error handling. It could all have ended there, but it was about that time that Baird discovered some Novell discussion groups on the Net.

"I realised that people were wanting similar programs, so I started giving them away." Baird realised that these programs needed to be tidied up and began embellishing them in his own time.

"I'd been able to justify doing the basics to solve a task at Lincoln but the extra bits and pieces I did in my own time." Baird estimated that about 99% of the tools' code was written in his own time, and put the proposition to Lincoln that he retain legal ownership of the source code. They agreed, and in 1992 he set up a company and a Web site to sell his products.

"I still give away the initial package of tools, but the new set I sell." It's a common ploy on the Web to give away the basic tools and charge for the more advanced, and it's working well for Baird.

"They pay an up-front fee to buy the software. That gives them the current version and any updates released for 12 months. Then we send a renewal invoice and they pay a lesser fee to keep receiving the updates." Of the 50 customers Baird originally contacted, 43 are still renewing their contracts annually.

Baird's customers aren't just to be found in the tertiary education market, although they still make up more than half his customer base. Others include Disney, Xerox, US broadcast company NBC and even the Pentagon.

"We're in over 30 countries, mostly in the US and Europe."

Even Novell itself buys some of Baird's tools, but sadly shows no interest in buying his ideas outright.

"All my stuff is command line-based, not GUI-based. It's a niche market." But it's a growing market, says Baird, as more products move to GUI-based interfaces.

"They don't lend themselves to automation and a lot of my customers use my tools to automate user code creation, management and deletion."

Because the tools are all command line- based, managers can control groups instead of individuals.

As for the future, Baird says he could easily give up work tomorrow to focus on his business, but he would miss the interaction with his colleagues.

"I may cut my time at Lincoln to half time next year, but we'll see what happens."

Baird says he has more ideas than he has time to develop them, which can't be too bad a position to be in, really.

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