A Novell approach to disruptive technology

23 Sep 2004

Such was the confidence around open source in general and Linux in particular at Novell’s Brainshare Europe developer conference in Barcelona last week that one of chairman and CEO Jack Messman’s first remarks was that all of the computers behind the entire event were running Linux. “This conference doesn’t do Windows and neither do I,” he declared.

A conference is one thing; real-world IT applications are another. Questioned later, Messman was obliged to row back a little on extravagant claims about the transformative power of Linux. Microsoft, with its massive market share on desktop computers, can’t be ignored just yet and Novell executives acknowledged that they will continue to ensure their products will work with those of the world’s largest software company as long as customers need.

Messman was adamant, however, that at least now customers have a choice. Novell chief technology officer Richard Nugent added: “We’re not abandoning Windows but we think the market will abandon Windows at some point.”

Novell believes that its acquisition of Linux development firm SuSe earlier this year represents a milestone on the road of Linux’s development and its movement into the mainstream of business computing. Tied into this effort, the software company is firmly building its new and future software offerings around Linux.

Messman acknowledged that Linux is a “brave new world” for many organisations and the open source operating system must do more to tempt prospective users than simply not being Microsoft. The Novell chief talked of an ecosystem in place that removes many of the barriers to adoption. “There is often a gap between capable technology and viable business solutions. Linux must offer the same levels of support as proprietary solutions do.” He claimed that Novell’s global technical support strategy and the products around it “transform Linux from being an interesting idea to being a viable business solution”.

Other data and application integration tools announced by Novell also help to break down the so-called ‘silos’ of information between departments in a business or various government agencies, a situation that can hinder organisations in providing a single view of the user. Identity-driven systems are aware of what roles and requirements every user has and can allocate computing resources to them according to their status. These systems would be delivered on an open source platform, which Novell claims can meet the security, scalability and cost requirements that governments face.

Novell won’t be going it alone: in Barcelona the company announced a raft of new agreements with partners such as independent software vendors, aimed at extending the reach of open source products and services in the market.

Analysts agreed with Novell’s outlook and welcomed the company’s new focus. “There were some things that certainly make Novell a much more interesting company to consider,” said Neil Ward-Dutton, director of technology practices with the UK technology analyst firm Ovum. “It’s not just a Linux services or distribution company, it’s looking to bring an extra layer of value around this technology for customers. It makes Novell more compelling.”

For example, Mono is an open source development managed by Novell that allows organisations running applications built for Windows to carry these directly over to Linux without any programming changes. This is a significant step, according to Ward-Dutton. Many organisations were previously reluctant to adopt Linux because it would have meant re-training developers familiar with Windows to work with an entirely new environment.

As an established company, Novell can bring a broad reach of skills and technology around managing the moves towards Linux reliably and securely, Ward-Dutton added. More importantly, Novell has also provided a framework that allows organisations to move forward in a low-risk way without the need to rip out and replace existing systems. “It’s the message people really want to hear. They can integrate these new products with what they have already. While Novell doesn’t have all the answers yet, it’s doing a lot.”

Richard Seibt, EMEA president for Novell (pictured), weighed in with his own assessment. “[Moving to Linux] is not just a cost argument,” he claimed. “Customers take decisions on their computing architecture for the next six to 10 years varying from industry to industry. Today they are taking Linux into consideration. In government for example, Linux is always the preferred alternative.”

Government proved to be one of the major themes of the conference, with Novell flexing its muscles to tackle the public sector, which it believes is showing an appetite for all things open source. On the one hand were product and service announcements intended to serve this important vertical market; on the other were actual customer testimonials from organisations that had made the switch.

On the main stage Novell outlined a policy-based Citizen Portal and Linux migration strategies, tools and services for the government market. In conference rooms and breakout sessions, meanwhile, representatives from the cities of Barcelona, Stockholm and Bergen in Norway as well as Leeds City Council in the UK shared tales from the front lines and gave their generally positive experiences in moving to open source.

One of the most intriguing parts of the keynote was a demo of how an identity-driven e-government service might work. Using the example of a city’s public service portal, the scenario showed how someone who had recently moved into the area could check that the information the city has about them was accurate. That user could also register to receive services such as water, gas, electricity and telecoms. All these services come from disparate providers, but all could be requested from a single website.

The citizen could select what services they need and what parts of their information they wish to share with each of those providers, an element designed to comply with data privacy laws, giving the citizen a choice about what information he or she is willing to share. The businesses listed on the portal would have all been pre-approved by the city; Novell terms this a “circle of trust” between the public service (the city) and the private enterprises (car dealers, telecoms suppliers or whatever the case may be).

There was some irony that ‘identity’ should have been such a strong theme from a company that has changed its own many times over the years. Novell appears to believe that its new focus will propel the company, after some years of being on the margins, to being relevant again.

By Gordon Smith