May 1, 2003

BrainShare report: Novell embraces open source with NetWare 6.5

- by James E. Gaskin -
Novell sent mixed messages at its BrainShare conference last month. After hearing from Novell executives and attending the technical presentations at the conference,
current open source application developers gave Novell a grade of A, while Linux partisans gave Novell an A for promises but a C for late delivery.

First the good news. NetWare 6.5, the upcoming revision which is scheduled to ship this summer, includes:

  • Apache 2.0.45
  • MySQL 4.0.12
  • Perl 5.8
  • PHP 4.2.3
  • Tomcat 4.1.18
  • ExteNd Application Server 4.0 (from Novell's SilverStream acquisition)
  • Java Virtual Machine 1.4

Developers should have little or no trouble porting existing open source applications to NetWare 6.5. Many of the list above can be used with NetWare 6 or even earlier versions; for instance, Apache 1.3.26 ships with NetWare 6 today. MySQL for NetWare 6 has been available since December and can be downloaded from Novell's Web site.

Now the bad, or at least delayed, news. Novell will attend the Linux party by adding the option of running a Linux kernel under NetWare services, but not until NetWare 7, which won't hit the streets for at least 18 to 24 months.

Jack Messman, a long-time Novell director who took over as co-chairman last year, has a broader resume (meaning less technical). During BrainShare he told a reporter for Computerworld that "Linux is an immature operating system right now. It hasn't had somebody like Novell worrying about making it robust, reliable and scalable for very much time. We think we can bring that to the Linux kernel." A hurried written apology appeared the next day from Messman and claimed he misspoke. Every other Novell executive I spoke to during BrainShare understood the work done by Red Hat, United Linux, and other companies such as IBM to make Linux more robust, reliable, and scalable. Chris Stone, a former Novell employee who returned to Novell last year as co-chairman, knows his way around open source communities and the Linux world. Novell executives, developers, and engineers pushing NetWare toward open source and Linux seem to know what they're doing and understand the market fairly well.

Linux support details

Misstatements notwithstanding, Novell has been moving toward Linux for several years. Many of the services that make NetWare NetWare, such as the eDirectory directory service, run on Linux as well as other operating systems (Windows, Unix, and Solaris). ZENworks and GroupWise clients now run on Linux or will soon. All the common Linux applications such as Apache, MySQL, Perl, and PHP run on NetWare, allowing Novell to market NAMP (NetWare Apache MySQL PHP) to correspond to LAMP.

Novell developers even showed an early alpha version of the GroupWise collaboration and messaging backend running on Linux. GroupWise ranks far behind Microsoft's Exchange in market share because of marketing, not technical, deficiencies. GroupWise has more name recognition and a larger installed base than any Linux-based messaging and collaboration system.

Saying "Linux" always brings the question of "which kernel and distribution" to people's minds. Unfortunately, Novell executives evidently haven't heard that question before because it seemed to throw them when asked. Messman's comments about Novell "improving" the Linux kernel might indicate Novell will create its own Linux kernel. When I asked if NetWare 7 would run on top of Red Hat or SuSE or some other distribution, answers varied, but everyone seemed uncertain. Since we're still waiting for NetWare 6.5 perhaps we shouldn't get sweat the fine points about NetWare 7.0 yet.

Customers I spoke with like Novell's stated direction to increase Linux support and interaction for NetWare. Linux fans were thrilled and NetWare fans were happy that the Linux kernel would be an option alongside the traditional NetWare kernel.

Novell executives, of course, claim using the NetWare kernel rather than the Linux kernel for NetWare 7 will provide better performance, but such implementation decisions are not made based on technical merits alone. Companies solidly in the Linux camp will demand the Linux kernel. Companies solidly in the NetWare camp will demand the NetWare kernel. Companies that make decisions based on hype will buy Microsoft Windows Server 2003. and Novell's open source direction

Novell is determined to lose its reputation as the world's most hostile development environment by moving to strong open source support and leading developers away from the traditional NetWare Loadable Module development quagmire. The company announced a new developers site during the Monday morning keynote speech. The name for Novell's new developer Web hangout is intentionally reminiscent of open source development site SourceForge (which of course is our sister site).

According to Kris Magnusson, chairman of Novell's Open Source Review Board, Novell developers approached the open source community three years ago to ask what Novell could do for them. Novell "wants to extend real value to the open source community with good examples for NetWare applications and good code submitted," says Magnusson.

Forge went live two weeks before BrainShare, but the public announcement occurred during the Monday keynote speech. By Wednesday's meeting with Magnusson and Chris Cooper, Novell's director of developer services, both men were thrilled at the Forge response. More than 70 projects were posted the first day after the announcement, and many downloaded Novell's first contributed product, a Universal Discovery, Description, and Integration server. This could be seen as a tad self-serving, since the Novell Nsure UDDI Server hooks neatly into eDirectory, but since more than a billion seats of eDirectory are reportedly deployed there appears to be plenty of value in the product.

A third-party site for open source Novell developers,, went live in March. Third-party support at all levels will be necessary to push NetWare into the open source developer community.

Information for developers abounded at BrainShare, including 35 Developer Presentations and 29 Developer Hands-On sessions, for which PowerPoint presentations are available. Among the more interesting: Ulrich Neumann, a Novell DeveloperNet sysop, has ported PostGreSQL and the Bash shell to NetWare 6.5 and is working on porting vi.

Novell's employee ranks includes a number of open source advocates, including several who have commit privileges to the Apache and PHP code bases. New employees often come with experience in open source and various Linux distributions. Internal pressure to use open source products within Novell increases daily, especially with the commercial license arrangement with MySQL.

For a relatively small company with a fairly new executive team that promised strong customer focus, Novell put out a variety of messages at their BrainShare conference in mid-April. Yet customers seemed happy that Novell made its direction clear regarding Linux, and pleasantly surprised at seeing the level of enthusiasm from new Novell open source partners like MySQL.

James E. Gaskin writes books, articles, and jokes about technology and real life. He started consulting and writing in the open world 14 years ago as a columnist with Unix Today! (which became Open Systems Today).


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