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11/10/2006
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What Ray Knew

Sure, Novell benefited from the PC boom, columnist Eric Hall says. But the inverse is also true--without Novell and specifically Ray Noorda, the PC industry as a whole would have almost certainly evolved down a different path.

Ray Noorda passed away on October 9, after suffering a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. Unfortunately, most of the obituaries I've read seem to have taken a "by-the-way" approach to his passing, and almost all of them have utterly failed to convey the tremendous impact he had on our industry. At a very minimum, this is a lost opportunity to revisit some of the lessons he taught.

Ray Noorda was born in Ogden, Utah in 1924, the son of Dutch immigrants. During World War II, Mr. Noorda joined the Navy as a radar technician, and then earned a degree in engineering from the University of Utah in 1949. From there, he went to work as an engineer for General Electric, where he remained for 21 years in various roles, including stints in marketing and management. After leaving GE, Mr. Noorda worked for a variety of California companies, plying his technical and management skills to become a successful turnaround artist for troubled technology firms.

In mid-1983, Mr. Noorda joined Novell as president and CEO. At the time, the company was one of a handful of providers of hardware-based PC networking equipment, and was struggling to make money in a nascent and ill-defined market. But Novell had a secret weapon: a handful of student contractors were secretly developing a software-based networking platform. Mr. Noorda pushed this technology into packaged form by the end of the year, and it subsequently became known as NetWare.

Although the initial product releases didn't exactly set the industry on fire, the package was eventually ported to common PC hardware, and within a few years NetWare 286 was positioned to the lead the PC networking industry into a new era.

Many people don't really remember, but prior to NetWare, "PC networking" mostly consisted of buying a custom box that was little more than a specialty hard drive with multiple connectors, to which you would attach your PCs. Moreover, most of the computing industry as a whole was still pushing vertical solutions, especially mid-range computers and multi-user systems, and that was the model people understood for early PC networking as well.

A software-based solution using PC hardware was considered to be a radical proposition at the time, and many people dismissed the proposition outright.

As we all know by now though, software can be compelling. Not only is it more flexible and therefore ultimately more powerful than fixed-in-time hardware architectures, software's independence from hardware lock-in also put the buyer in charge of their own future. You could build your own systems to suit your specific needs, usually for less money than you could buy an ill-fitting vertical system, and without having to commit your entire enterprise to a vendor's architecture.

If a vendor's system didn't work as a NetWare server, you could just swap it out for another one and still keep all your data and other assets intact, a promise that was unmatched in any other sector of the industry at the time. This seems obvious today, but it was practically unheard of back then.

In fact, given that a large part of the early PC success story came from networks that were pieced together beneath the corporate IT radar, Novell is arguably responsible for much of the PC industry's early success, since it was the principal technology that actually allowed people to move away from vertical architectures towards distributed PC computing architectures en masse. Sure, Novell benefited from the PC boom, but the inverse is also true--without Novell and specifically Ray Noorda, the PC boom itself would have almost certainly evolved down a different path.

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