I was trying to ruminate how to write this so it wasn’t an out and out hit piece on how badly Novell shot themselves when it comes to running Linux. Then I realized that this was the company who brought us netware, and they couldn’t ever get ahead of it. Once I realized this, I understood the fundamental truth of the issue: Novell has always stood in Microsofts shadow and this is why they never achieved greatness.
Netware always ran on top of DOS. They were inseparable even as OS2 ran on top of DOS. DOS wasn’t even particularly nice, but the selling point of DOS back then was that it wasn’t UNIX. And it wasn’t even that it wasn’t UNIX in the sense that UNIX was unpleasant to use – UNIX was a great write-once-run-anywhere example with POSIX (for the most part) – it was that it was so darned expensive. The rise of Linux has been documented ad infinitum on this blog and elsewhere. If you’re unclear about it, grab a copy of the absolutely great Revolution OS and watch it. It’s not as much about politics as The Cathedral and Baazar but more about the people involved and their motivation in the face of absolute commercial adversity.
Lets consider, for a moment, the state of a Linux company as a whole in the present. Windows 7/Windows Server 2008 (I’ll just call it “Win 7″) finally has threading and user separation which is actually worth something. Windows 7 scripting is still a crapshoot with power shell but it’s vastly better than it ever was. People are finally starting to take .Net seriously since the Win 7 threading stopped sucking. It’s still hideously expensive to run, but it’s got the critical advantage that people are generally familiar with it. I know most of my readership runs Linux, bear with me, I run it too. When we say that Linux has better, more robust filesystems, this is true. When we say Linux is typically faster, this is true. When we point to Linux and we say that it’s more secure, this is true. The problem here in the present for a Linux company is that Windows 7 is probably good enough for most people. MS has put something out which is so good it raises the bar, and people who were not terribly happy with Linux due to their vendor might take a moment and say “Well now performance is similar for my specific purpose, lets give it a try”. I’m looking at you, Novell, because your tech support sucks, and this is coming from someone who’s been running Linux for 10 years and saw how badly Caldera’s support sucked.
What happened to Caldera? Novell bought them. Sigh.
When the company I worked for decided to shove off Novell’s SuSE, this is exactly the reasoning. Novell’s support sucked, in turn performance was marginal but vastly poorer than their marketing material would have shown, I suggested going to RedHat and the company ultimately decided Windows 7 was “good enough”. There is now balkanization where various departments are spinning off their own IT groups who were happy and satisfied with SuSE, but these IT groups are running OpenSuSE and they’re not using the Novell proprietary services. They would be every bit as happy on RedHat or Fedora or Debian or Ubuntu… as they would with SuSE. To them it doesn’t matter what Linux they’re running so long as the old faithful chugs along and dishes up their applications. To them, Linux is “good enough”. To my group which has to do things like directory administration and file sharing, Novell was a serious problem on whatever OS we ran it on (including XP clients to eDirectory which often crashed or did weird stuff when java was updated) and the new problem was that it wasn’t even “good enough”, it was totally blown out of the water.
Lets take a step forward and get out my Penguin Crystal Ball. Novell’s in trouble because they’ve allied themselves as a partner with MS and touted their AD compatibility. The problem was they did this before Win 7 really got a foothold out there and now the Big Push from MS was Windows 7 as a server OS. Now Novell, once again, finds itself competing with MS in MS’s own ballpark. This is from a simple technology perspective, nevermind that Novell only recently fixed up eDirectory to AD support to make it robust. From a money perspective it’s a no brainer – the cost of the license + the cost of support is about what you would pay for a similar amount of performance from MS. I’m not going to say they lied here, but the performance numbers were definitely padded in my opinion and it only got worse once the virtualization craze hit because it was even slower. RedHat here is a great example of doing this correctly – the price is competitive and the numbers are correct, but more on the point RedHat understands that MS is the Big Dog in the neighborhood and RedHat’s claim to fame is that they serve as AD replica servers flawlessly. Now you have a MS product which is fully supported, but if you have a branch office that doesn’t need all the bells and whistles, you can throw a RedHat Enterprise Linux server out there for $100 and serve up a full replica of AD. You can’t even buy Windows 7 for $100. Redhat’s other great idea – It doesn’t care if you’re a Mac or an MS client. It can serve up the domain and filesystems wholly transparently. Try joining an AD domain with an Apple sometime, see how that works out for you.
Novell, as a company, I am fairly sure will persist. There’s a lot of people such as ourselves who have legacy applications which run on Netware but want some bridge to the future. There’s also a place for companies right now who do Linux distributions because Linux’s kernel is going through growing pains at the moment with regards to hardware and “kernel module loaders”. The question is – how long can they hold on with both Apple and MS going for two different market segments? Apple is quickly becoming the defacto desktop to run for people who think buying a new computer is the solution to computer problems. They made a great choice putting a pretty face on the good old UNIX workhorse and they weren’t so vain as to make broad sweeping changes to POSIX (looking at you, Novell) or hide the command line. It even runs Linux software almost 100% so it has a wealth of applications. Win 7 in this respect is too little, too late. However, on the server side, Windows 7 is just what it needed to be to compete with UNIX deployments. Java, threads, scripting, POSIXy stuff and great privilege separation are all there. If I were Novell, I would be doing some serious soul searching.
If I were looking for a new way to update my infrastructure, I’d probably give Windows 7/Windows 2008 a try and put RedHat into service as a performance enhancer for my new, shiny system.
Update: In case anyone is wondering “what do I do if novell tanks?” – you can install OES (the Novell enterprise software) on top of RedHat. It works perfectly with a bit of librarly versioning work, but it can be done and it does run correctly.