"NetWare is not about an OS," says Alan Nugent, Novell's CTO. "It's about a set of services that sit on top of a kernel." Until now, this has meant NetWare's own OS. From 2004 onwards, it will mean Linux. Instead of buying a complete NetWare OS, customers will be able to install Novell Nterprise Linux Services (NNLS), a suite of software that makes a Linux server more like a NetWare server.
Novell's long-term plan is for NNLS to become the next version of NetWare, but it isn't there yet. The first beta of NNLS appeared in October 2003, offering NetWare's identity, messaging, and file and printer sharing functions. The latest version of the OS itself, 6.5, offers many more features, including centralized management and directory services. Novell expects NNLS to reach full feature parity with NetWare 6.5 by the end of 2004. Six months later, NetWare 7.0 will be able to run entirely under Linux, as well as provide several new features. NetWare 7.0 will also offer Linux versions of Novell's other products, including the GroupWise e-mail system and the ZENworks management suite.
In addition to developing NNLS, Novell has spent 2003 transforming itself into a Linux company. In August, it acquired Ximian, a Linux applications start-up. In November, it announced plans to acquire SUSE, the second-largest vendor of Linux itself, in a three-way deal that will also let IBM take partial ownership of Novell. It also announced the Certified Linux Engineer (CLE) program, a set of courses and exams aimed at network managers using NNLS. Based on the free software community's own Linux Professional Institute (LPI) courses, it could eventually replace the venerable Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) certification.
Novell isn't the first large vendor to embrace open source, but it's the largest software company to have done so. Many software companies fear the movement because it enables customers to get for free what they would otherwise have to pay for. Novell sees things differently. "It was once prudent for us to build our own OS, but we don't need to anymore," says Nugent. A free kernel frees the company's developers to concentrate on higher-level functions. In NetWare 7.0, these will include better support for Web services and what Novell calls "autonomic computing," a network infrastructure that can repair itself without human intervention.
The old NetWare OS isn't disappearing entirely. Customers who don't want to migrate to Linux will also be able to run all NetWare 7.0 services on the traditional NetWare kernel. However, the NetWare kernel can only run on a 32-bit x86 server, and Novell has no plans to port it to newer 64-bit platforms. The services for Linux will run on any server platform supported by SUSE, including Intel's Itanium, AMD's Opteron, and IBM mainframes.
NetWare services can also run on other distributions of Linux, or even proprietary UNIX. However, Novell has not decided which (if any) will be officially supported. NNLS 1.0 has been tested to work with the popular Red Hat Linux, but that's because it was written before Novell bought SUSE, Red Hat's main competitor. Novell won't guarantee out-of-the-box compatibility with Red Hat in future versions, though it may extend support to SUSE's two partners in UnitedLinux, a consortium that aims to improve compatibility between different Linux distributions.
"We're still very good friends with TurboLinux and Conectiva," says Richard Seibt, CEO of SUSE, referring to the other members of UnitedLinux. Though little known in the U.S., TurboLinux and Conectiva are the leading Linux companies in Asia and South America respectively.
Support for other UNIX variants is unlikely. "You'll see proprietary UNIX tail off," Nugent predicts. "There are three server platforms that matter: Windows, Linux and NetWare."
Buying SUSE was an obvious move for Novell: It gives the company a way to sell the Linux OS bundled with the NetWare services that run on top of it. Ximian is more interesting. Most of its products are aimed at users of Linux desktops, a niche that's a long way from Novell's traditional market.
"Long term, we think there is a place in the enterprise for Linux as an alternative desktop," says Nugent. This wasn't the only reason for Novell's interest in Ximian. Ximian is leading development of Mono, an open-source implementation of Microsoft's .Net Framework. When it's completed in late 2004, Mono will allow Windows applications developed for .Net to run under Linux without any rewriting or recompiling.
Mono is controversial among open-source programmers, who aren't sure whether it will help people move from Windows to Linux or in the opposite direction. Microsoft is also ambivalent about it for the same reason. To Novell, it will be an important driver of enterprise Linux adoption, and a reason to use NetWare.
"Our intention with Mono was to make it easier to build better-quality Linux applications," says Nat Friedman, Ximian's co-founder. Although many programmers dislike Microsoft, they admire its development tools such as Visual Studio. Mono will mean that these tools can be used to develop applications for Linux, not just Windows, so enterprises will be able to adopt Linux without retraining in-house developers.
Microsoft updates the .Net Framework with every new release of Windows, which makes some open-source advocates fear that Mono won't be able to keep up. Novell isn't worried about this, because the core parts of .Net have been standardized with the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA, www.ecma-international.org) as ECMA-335. While Microsoft is adding extra features to .Net over and above those in the standard, Nugent believes it won't take anything out. "I think Microsoft already has enough antitrust trouble in Europe," he says. "They won't screw around with ECMA."
Mono also includes some extra components of its own, enabling programmers to take advantage of Linux features not found in Windows. Despite these, Novell is betting that many developers will want to stick to the ECMA standard, not using capabilities specific to either Windows or Linux. This will make applications portable from one platform to the other without any changes, enabling customers currently locked into Windows to switch to Linux. "If you offload applications to Linux, you can save yourself a ton of money," says Nugent. "Why spend $800 for software when you can get it for $0?"
Novell won't be giving NetWare away for nothing, of course. Unlike Linux companies that sell support contracts or services, Novell plans to continue making most of its revenue from licensing, something that doesn't mesh well with the culture of free software. It also has a lot of work to do in bringing NNLS and Mono up to speed. But if it succeeds, it will make NetWare relevant again, and provide a worthy competitor to Microsoft.
Senior Editor ANDY DORNAN can be reached at [email protected].
Objective: Change NetWare from an OS into a set of OS-independent services. Move beyond resource sharing and directory services to enable cross-platform applications that can run on Windows and Linux.
Status: Novell Nterprise Linux Services is still in beta, but should offer equivalent functionality to the full NetWare product within a year. The same applies to Mono, its open-source implementation of .Net.
Credibility: SUSE and Ximian add Linux development and Windows reverse-engineering talent to Novell's interoperability experience. But how well NetWare will transition to Linux is still questionable.