What a surprise! Novell rethinks itself

WOW. The SCO Group just announced it is dropping the suit against IBM and refunding the money it took in the Linux licence blackmail scheme. And it apologised for being so annoying and said Darl McBride would be driven out of town on a rail after being tarred and feathered.

Nah, just kidding.

But although nothing quite that surprising has happened, I’d say that Novell’s recent love affair with Linux is pretty remarkable. The bottom line is Novell has committed to delivering NetWare services to run on top of Linux.

Novell hasn’t declared what will happen to its NetWare operating system in the long term, although vice chairman Chris Stone said in a recent interview that “The NetWare OS will go on forever… OSes never die.”

But Stone also referred to the NetWare operating system going into “maintenance mode” — a roundabout way of saying it will be supported but not developed further. If that’s not death perhaps it would be better to think of it as suspended animation.

Operating systems might well never die but they do fossilise. Technologies evolve through generations of systems and the older generations become less relevant and less valuable as they are superseded. This will be NetWare’s fate as it has been the fate of MS-DOS, DR-DOS, PICK, RSX-11M and Minix, just as it is becoming the fate of Windows NT.

You see, we’ve gone far beyond the days when we were blown away by server operating systems that were miraculous simply because they could open a file and lock it. Now we never consider file service to be a big deal. No, now we expect things such as journaling and advanced security and encryption.

What we think a server operating system should do has changed considerably over the years. What matters are the high-level services and systems that provide management infrastructure; all the old features have become commodities. Indeed, operating systems in general are simply commodities providing insulation from the hardware and the basic services that applications need.

So does it matter that the NetWare operating system ultimately will become part of history? No. I know some of you will shudder and complain bitterly at the thought of losing the operating system part of NetWare. You most likely see it as intrinsic to your network strategy. Unfortunately, your reluctance to accept and embrace change simply is fighting against the inexorable forces of economics, nothing more. You can’t win.

But Novell won’t immediately dump the NetWare operating system. The next version, NetWare 7, is planned to run on top of both the NetWare operating system and Linux for what I suspect are mainly marketing reasons. That said, Novell could surprise us and go wholeheartedly for a Linux foundation sooner rather than later.

Moving NetWare services to the Linux platform is interesting for many reasons. First of all, unlike proprietary server operating systems such as Windows, Linux can be verified to be secure. The endless list of security holes ultimately could spell the death of Windows. Secondly, adopting Linux lets Novell focus on the bigger and more profitable goal of delivering service value rather than having to do all the operating system engineering that went into NetWare.

Thanks to Novell’s commitment to Linux and Mono (an open source version of Microsoft’s .Net platform), a lot of people are going to be feeling good about the company, which will go a long way to reviving interest in its products.

So, from what I see through these initiatives, Novell is likely to surprise us and finally reinvent and rediscover itself. The result could prove to be profitable for the company and profound for the market.

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