Whenever Novell rebrands itself, which happens every 18 months or so, it looks more like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, threatening to bite Microsoft's legs off.
The company's latest new image could well be as ineffectual as any other image it has tried. The company is shuffling its efforts under four new banners, which "capitalise" (geddit?) on its strengths. Each one includes Novell's trademark capital N. The areas are exteNd (Web applications), Nsure (secure identity management), Nterprise (networking) and Ngage (services).
Marketing flim-flam aside, what is actually going on? Well, for the last couple of years, Novell's main claim to pre-eminence has been being way better than Microsoft at directories.
Pretty much everyone in the industry has long accepted that Novell's directory product, NDS, which became e-Directory in a previous re-branding exercise, was better than Microsoft's Active Directory from the outset. But Novell is preening itself because that fact has been acknowledged by no less a source than a Gartner Magic Quadrant diagram. Looking at metadirectory services, Gartner reckoned that Novell was the only player in the crucial "leadership" quadrant, up at the top right of the diagram.
But being best isn't good enough so Novell needs to ship products, establish marketshare and all those things which it hasn't quite managed to do since the days when it lorded it over file-and-print networks in the days of NetWare 3.
And that is the tricky thing. Directories -- the kind that run IT systems in big enterprises -- are big, complex things. There are big problems with the way bit IT systems are run, but Novell has to make us believe that those problems need solving and that it is the company to do it. It has to convince us, firstly, that it has a solution, secondly, that it has the best solution and finally (and most crucially) that it will still have the best solution in a year or two's time.
Now, the problem with directories is that they are not easy to see or sell. Around 1998, Novell had two years' head start over Microsoft's Active Directory, and a high level of trust from users, but still failed to build an unassailable installed base of NDS before Microsoft launched Active Directory.
When Microsoft delivered Windows 2000 which -- at last -- included Active Directory, people did not fall over themselves to put AD in charge of their whole corporate networks, despite the magic combination of "2000" and "AD" in one product name which must have played well amongst British comics fans -- don't knock it, I'm sure they are well represented amongst IT professionals in this country.
It begins to look like the time has come to start taking directories seriously, with large workforces that access multiple applications, and security worries. A good directory makes it easy to add new people, change permissions and (most importantly) remove all their permissions at once, the instant they leave the company.
But, these are big projects with big (eventual) paybacks, and this kind of project takes big consultancy and long sales cycles. Novell has taken Cambridge Technology Partners on board to help it -- and even spared CTP the indignity of a new brand with a capital N in it.
"One client had 145,000 users worldwide, accessing SAP," said David Cotterill of CTP. "There were 220 SAP installations, and 53 SAP admins." All this was costing £23m a year, he said, a figure which was growing at a sickening 30 percent each year. "They had to get 30 more admins in the next three months, just keep up," he said.
This is not so much an IT infrastructure, as a slow-motion train crash. Not surprisingly, the client (apparently a well-known manufacturer) is anonymous.
The user had some AD in its networks but that wouldn't scale, said Cotterill. With some help Deloitte & Touche, CTP sorted the user out with Novell's eDirectory and DirXML metadirectory, without any extra admin staff.
One interesting thing about this is the amount of consultancy in Novell's role. For every four Deloitte consultants involved in this humungous contract, there were two from CTP, on the Novell payroll.
As with every other effort to unseat Microsoft, the directory front isn't working as originally planned. Microsoft, as usual, is shipping stacks of the low-level stuff, and as the product gets better, it gets used more. Next year, from all accounts, .Net Server will represent a big jump in AD functionality.
So Novell is left with the high-level stuff, working hard to fix things so smaller directories (including those from Microsoft) fit together, right across companies. That gap will, presumably get smaller over time, as the Microsoft products get better.
But it should at least make sure that Novell is around for a good few years more. Which is good, because we would miss the company if it wasn't around.