Kearns' column: Which port in this storm?

Novell recently announced availability of its Single Sign-on -- a directory-based package that eliminates the need for users to remember multiple passwords. The software lets them log on to the computer network once and access a variety of applications across multiple platforms. Alongside Novell's announcement was one from Lotus declaring support for Single Sign-on for its Domino servers and Notes client.

This reminded me of the brouhaha surrounding the announcement that Lotus' newest release of Domino, 5.0, would not be available on the NetWare platform. Trying to get to the bottom of the decision led to an exercise in semantics.

Here's what happened: A user, trying to find out if Release 5.0 would ship for NetWare, called his service provider. The service representative checked with Lotus and called back a couple days later to report that "Novell would not allow Domino access to a required port for the Domino server". "Port" in this case is understood to be a particular IP socket, which, when combined with a network address, is called a port.

The user found this hard to believe. Release 4.0 had run on NetWare, and he couldn't believe Lotus had changed the port numbers the company was using for access. Nor could he believe that NetWare suddenly required Lotus' port number for some other activity; port numbers can be virtually anything, as long as the client and server agree on them.

Not content with the answer, the user contacted IBM, Lotus' parent company. IBM said "the NetWare platform doesn't allow access to a particular I/O port on the system". So the problem was with an I/O port (part of the system BIOS) rather than an IP port (a socket number). Well, which was it? Neither made much sense.

A call to Novell -- to someone familiar with the situation -- revealed that the real reason for the confusion was that IBM wanted Novell to rewrite the programming code as a NetWare Loadable Module for free. It wasn't that Novell was blocking a "port" (socket), or that NetWare didn't allow access to a "port" (I/O buffer), but that IBM wanted Novell to "port" (rewrite the program) Release 5.0, gratis! That's a big difference.

People who heard only the first or second explanation would be mightily miffed at Novell for what's perceived to be a dumb move -- blocking the release of Domino 5.0 for NetWare. People who dug deeper into the controversy, though, know where to point the finger. And it all hinged on the meaning of one word.

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