Novell buys its way deeper into Linux

FRAMINGHAM (11/07/2003) - Network executives and industry analysts are applauding Novell Inc.'s move to acquire SuSE Linux AG, saying that it signals a new beginning for Novell and a boost for open source.

But they also say there are challenges ahead as Novell, which built its business on its proprietary NetWare operating system, attempts to reinvent itself as an open source player.

"This brings Novell and the word excitement back into the same sentence. It brings them back onto the radar screen in places that they've largely ignored for years. . . . And it helps Linux find a center," says Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of systems software at IDC. "Now the trick is can Novell allow the Linux community to still be a community instead of trying to run it as a corporate entity?"

Novell initially underscored its commitment to open source earlier this year when it announced that all its network services would run on Linux. Since then, Novell also bought Linux desktop, management and collaboration software provider Ximian Inc.

SuSE, which Novell this week announced plans to buy for US$210 million, completes Novell's Linux picture by letting the company provide products that span the desktop, server and applications that sit on top of the server operating system, says Novell CEO Jack Messman. But the question is, how will Novell integrate its new Linux products with its flagship NetWare systems.

Novell has a spotty record when it comes to integrating acquired technology, analysts say. Its forays with WordPerfect and Unix in the early '90s were busts.

"Novell did a very poor job with UnixWare. They really screwed that up," says Bill Claybrook, an analyst with Aberdeen Group Inc. "But I don't think they'll make the same mistake with Linux. It's not like Linux is their operating system, so they can't do whatever they want with it. They have to be cognizant of what open source demands of you as a vendor."

Still, some customers worry that Novell might be too aggressive when it comes to adding proprietary extensions to SuSE Linux and could dilute the open-source nature of the operating system.

Ross Vandegrift, a network administrator at Seitz Technical Products in Avondale, Pa., which runs NetWare and Linux, says he'll watch the merger closely.

"If Novell is wise in their moves, they will add on to core distributions as modularly as possible," he says. "History has shown that closely integrating proprietary extensions with free software has been a reliability nightmare. . . . So long as Novell sticks to using the published, well-known, widely available interfaces, I don't foresee a problem."

Jim Michael, IS manager for the city of Chesterfield, Mo., is concerned about just the opposite. He worries that Novell won't add enough proprietary extensions, resulting in Linux products that are less functional than traditional NetWare. He's worried Novell's Linux focus could "sound the final death knell of NetWare."

"I want to continue to use NetWare, but if all of Novell's development energy is going into Linux products, logic tells me that the NetWare development will be getting the short end of the stick and thus Novell's own applications running on NetWare will quickly start to suffer," he says.

Another hurdle in Novell's Linux plans is that SuSE and Ximian have overlapping products. Ximian has its GNOME desktop, while SuSE has KDE. Management products also overlap: SuSE's Autoyast, Ximian's Red Carpet and Novell's ZENworks.

Novell Vice Chairman Chris Stone says that while development efforts have been converged, no decisions have been made as to which products will remain.

"Right now it is in product development, and we need to do the integration work to figure out from a branding and naming point how that will work out," he says. "We will be the No.1 company in the (Linux) business over the coming years."

Stone conceded that development of NetWare services for Linux would favor SuSE first, before Red Hat Inc. or other Linux distributions.

Joe Poole, technical director at Boscov's Department Stores LLC in Reading, Pa., runs SuSE Linux in his data center and sees the merger as good news, but says Novell's ultimate commitment to Linux will be what counts.

"Novell has got our attention," he says. "What they do over the next six months will tell us whether they're really on the comeback trail or just experimenting."

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