Ever since it unveiled a Linux-compatible version of its flagship NetWare networking software at its Brainshare user conference 12 months ago, Novell has been out to prove its open source credentials are bona fide.
Four months after the conference, it bought Ximian, the owner of the Gnome desktop Linux user interface and the Mono open source technology that makes it possible to run Microsoft .Net applications on Linux. Then, in November 2003, it acquired Germany’s SuSE Linux, the second-biggest distributor of the open source operating system.
In case there was anyone left doubting its sincerity about open source, the keynote speaker at Brainshare 2004, held in Salt Lake City, Utah in March, was Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux.
Greeted by a standing ovation and a flurry of (quickly procured) Finnish flags, the world’s most famous programmer declared his support for Novell and its efforts to drive mass-market adoption of the technology he initially crafted and now oversees.
Novell’s CEO, Jack Messman, standing beside Torvalds on stage, looked justifiably smug. His acquisitions last year have not just provided Novell with Linux expertise all the way from the server to the desktop, they also appear to finally give the company – scarred by years of bitter feuding with Microsoft – a viable recovery strategy.
“Novell is back,” exclaimed Messman to rapturous applause. Stronger partnerships are a further shot of adrenalin. Before the end of 2004, Hewlett-Packard has committed to offer SuSE Linux pre-loaded on its laptops and PCs, while IBM has bought $50 million of Novell’s shares.
All that is needed now, say his critics, is for Messman to sign a truce with Microsoft, and an unhappy chapter in Novell’s history can finally draw to a close. The legal problems might still continue, however. SCO, the small Unix developer that claims intellectual property rights to parts of Linux, has threatened to sue Novell for alleged intellectual property infringements. But Novell is staying bullish. “They are just threats,” says vice chairman Chris Stone. “We are not worried in the slightest.”
Stone, understandably, would prefer to focus on the opportunities, rather than the risks. “We believe that in the next 12 months, we will see the widespread adoption of Linux on the desktop,” he says.
At the server level, Novell’s new Open Enterprise Server, to be released by the end of 2004, will bundle both open source and proprietary software, combining SuSE Linux and Ximian technology with the networking capabilities of NetWare.
Novell also appears to be breaking new ground with its Linux-based Nterprise web services family, comprising the Zenworks management software, the Groupwise collaboration platform and the iFolder storage solution.
Eventually, will all of Novell’s code be open? “I doubt it,” admits Messman. “But I anticipate that our blend of proprietary and open source software will become more and more favourable towards open source.”
He may have to whisper it when Linus Torvalds is in earshot, but that underscores the point that there is a commercial motive to Novell’s open source enthusiasm after all.