March 21, 2006

Novell BrainShare 2006: Day one

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

SALT LAKE CITY -- Novell is hosting its BrainShare 2006 conference this week in Salt Lake City. Approximately 6,000 Novell customers and partners have swarmed on the Salt Lake Palace Convention Center to hear about Novell's plans for the future and bone up on Novell's technology. Highlights for me included hands-on looks at new technology, including AppArmour, ZENworks 7, and SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10.

The first item on the agenda Monday was the two-hour Novell keynote, a full-on multimedia production featuring most, if not all, of the company's key executives. Novell's execs hammered home Novell's message of the "open enterprise" during the keynotes in presentations that kind of ran together. Novell also chose to show several videos during the keynote highlighting Novell customers, which didn't add much to the presentation.

The company made a few important announcements on the first day of the show. Most notably, it unveiled a deal with Dell to offer a special edition of ZENworks 7 Linux Management that makes it possible to automate patch management for SUSE and Red Hat Linux, deploy images of Linux systems to hardware, and manage Dell PowerEdge servers.

Novell is also getting into the mobile messaging space with GroupWise Mobile Server, a free add-on to GroupWise that's supposed to provide mobile support for GroupWise to devices such as the BlackBerry.

The best parts of the keynote were the demos of Xen virtualization software and AppArmour security add-on in SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES). Crispin Cowan, director of software engineering for Novell, demonstrated creating a virtual machine using YaST's front-end for Xen in about two or three minutes. Xen, by itself, is not particularly user-friendly, so Xen's integration with SLES seems pretty interesting. Cowan also demonstrated AppArmour, Novell's answer to SELinux, for the audience -- more on that later.

What the audience didn't see Monday morning is probably the most interesting presentation of all. Because the keynote ran long, the demo of SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) 10 was dropped from the presentation. However, the press had an opportunity to see the presentation after the keynote during the scheduled press briefing. Nat Friedman, Novell's vice president of Linux desktop engineering, and product manager Guy Lunardi walked through SLED's new features -- including new support for Visual Basic macros, Beagle search, and Xgl/Compiz enhancements for the desktop. Novell has had videos of Compiz demos online for some time now, but it's not quite as impressive as seeing it in person.

It's unfortunate that the SLED 10 presentation didn't fit into Monday's presentation. Despite all of Novell's efforts, most of the presentations were fairly ho-hum. The SLED 10 presentation, however, actually elicited some excitement from the press in attendance, and would probably have excited the rest of the BrainShare attendees as well. According to Novell's PR folks, attendees will have a chance to see the presentation later in the week during another keynote.

NetWare fading

According to Novell, two-thirds of its customers who are using the Open Enterprise Server (OES) are running it on Linux rather than Netware. This doesn't mean that two-thirds of Novell's customers are using Linux -- just the customers who have moved to OES from NetWare. As I found out throughout the day, many users are still standing pat on NetWare.

Novell also announced that it would support NetWare 6.5 through at least 2015, so customers who have deployed solutions on NetWare 6.5 are well-covered for at least nine more years. However, the company has no plans to continue development of NetWare beyond supporting the software for existing customers, so it's unlikely that you'll see a NetWare 7.0.

Where's openSUSE?

The openSUSE project received very little attention during the keynotes. I asked about this during the press briefing and also during a private briefing with Novell's director of marketing for Linux and open source, Greg Mancusi-Ungaro.

According to Mancusi-Ungaro, the company has no major announcements around openSUSE right now, though the project is working on a build technology that's supposed to enable developers to build packages for openSUSE across all architectures as well as for other distributions. For example, Mancusi-Ungaro says that a package could be built for all of the various SUSE products, as well as Ubuntu, using the build system. The openSUSE folks demoed the technology at the Free and Open source Software Developers' European Meeting (FOSDEM) (a video of the demo is on the openSUSE site), though it hasn't been formally announced.

Mancusi-Ungaro also pointed out that openSUSE, SLES, and SLED share the same codebase -- while Fedora Core and Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) are not part of the same codebase. This means that customers and the community have the ability to influence the SUSE product line directly.

Still, I was a bit surprised to see so little emphasis on openSUSE at the show. During the press Q&A, Novell execs seemed kind of unfamiliar with openSUSE -- referring to "" several times rather than

Customer reactions

Poke around at almost any conference and you'll find people from all over the world, but the crowd at BrainShare is particularly diverse. Novell has decided to hold only one BrainShare event in 2006, so the event is bringing customers and partners from all corners of the globe to get their Novell fix. I talked to a number of Novell customers who are evaluating Linux, some from the US, some from the UK, several from Canada, and one Novell customer from the Netherlands.

Novell's users and customers seem to be loyal to NetWare and the company's other products. I talked to a number of customers about their plans for the future, whether they'd be deploying Linux, if they'd be sticking to NetWare for the time being, or if they were (heaven forbid) planning on moving to Windows at some point in the near future. Many of Novell's customers still have a wait and see attitude about Linux, but there's no enthusiasm for Microsoft Windows at all.

One sticking point for moving to Novell's Linux offerings is the difference in skill sets between NetWare and Linux. While Unix admins have little trouble making the switch, NetWare and Linux have little in common. One attendee was very dismissive of Novell's training and certification offerings for Linux outside of BrainShare -- though he, and all of the other attendees I spoke to, were generally positive about the training sessions offered at BrainShare.

Hands-on fun

I spent a good chunk of Monday evening in Novell's "lab" on site taking a look at SLED 10, ZENworks 7, and AppArmour. I didn't get to bang on the software in the same way that I would during a normal review, but I did have the chance to get a little hands-on time with some of the technology. If AppArmour works as well in the real world as it does in Novell's demos, I'll be impressed.

I sat down with Cowan to walk through the same demo he'd presented during the keynote. Basically, all that's necessary to create an AppArmour profile is to tell AppArmour the path of an application and run the program a few times so it can "profile" the application. It seems easy enough to use, though Cowan admitted it's much more difficult to create profiles for applications such as Firefox or than an application like Apache because those applications tend to touch more files on the system. He indicated that Novell plans to ship a number of default profiles with SLES and SLED, so users may not need to worry about creating all of their own profiles.

The ZENworks stuff also looks pretty good. It offers a pretty simple method to roll out patches for Linux and Dell hardware. A BIOS patch, for example, can be deployed using the ZENworks Web-based interface to any number of machines with just a few clicks. Of course, the main problem is that it's limited to Dell at the moment, so users who buy hardware from Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and other vendors don't have the same options yet. It seems likely that Novell is working on similar deals with other hardware vendors, but the company wouldn't confirm anything at the show.

A lot of folks have seen the videos of SLED 10 with Compiz and Xgl in action, but there's nothing like seeing the software for yourself. I spent about 20 minutes with one of Novell's demo machines, a Dell desktop with an integrated Intel chipset. I found it to be a little bit sluggish, but otherwise impressive. While the Compiz features make for great eye candy (I think the wiggly windows are somewhat unnecessary), many of the features also seem quite useful. In particular, the window tiling and live thumbnails make it much easier to cycle through application windows.

More to come

I spent most of Monday talking to Novell's execs about its products and Linux strategy for the rest of the year and seeing demos. Today I'm going to be spending most of my time on the show floor, talking to Novell's partners and seeing what ISVs are planing around SUSE Linux 10 as well as gathering further customer reactions on the show.

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