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Novell CEO paints vision for open source future

Novell CEO Jack Messman took center stage at LinuxWorld on a frigid New York City morning (perfectly fit for a penguin, according to him) to tell thousands of attendees that Novell is committed to ensuring that proprietary and open source software will peacefully co-exist in such a way that benefits the entire open source ecosystem. At one point during his keynote presentation, as though referencing Novell's problems of the past, Messman said, "We won't mess this up.
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Written by David Berlind, Inactive on
Novell CEO Jack Messman took center stage at LinuxWorld on a frigid New York City morning (perfectly fit for a penguin, according to him) to tell thousands of attendees that Novell is committed to ensuring that proprietary and open source software will peacefully co-exist in such a way that benefits the entire open source ecosystem. At one point during his keynote presentation, as though referencing Novell's problems of the past, Messman said, "We won't mess this up." Other than attributing the appearance of "IP issues" as a buying criteria on the minds of CIOs to "a fellow Utah-based company," Messman did not directly address SCO's recently announced lawsuit against Novell.

Messman's remarks, at the very least, should bolster confidence amongst CxOs who have a multitude of concerns about bringing both Linux and open source into their datacenters. "Our intention is to be a leader in the commercial Linux market," Messman said. "We do not seek to change the open source model. We will embrace it. This is good for Novell, the Linux community, and Linux industry as a whole."

The $1 billion company recently made a sudden change in direction, moving away from a strictly proprietary software business model to one more firmly grounded in open source. Wagering its entire future on open source, Messman characterized Novell as a new phenomenon to the open source industry. Indeed it is. Whereas other companies, such as IBM and HP, have embraced open source, they haven't staked their entire futures on it. Most of the remaining participants in the open source ecosystem either never had the critical mass of a company like Novell or, like Red Hat, were pretty much born out of the open source movement.

To prove his point, Messman talked about how Novell's recent acquisitions of "two of the open source world's gems"--SuSE and Ximian--have resulted in dramatic change in Novell's development culture. "We had to overcome a legacy. It's a big change going from writing code with friends down the hall to writing code with others you've never seen and potentially thousands of miles away. Thanks to folks from Ximian and SuSE, we are making that transition. Ximian, a company with only 70 employees, has had a fast impact on our 5700 employees and have infected our developers with the open source mojo."

In addition to convincing show goers that Novell's water coolers are not only stocked with open source Kool-Aid, but that it's employees are drinking it too, he talked about the challenges that lay ahead in moving open source and Linux from the corporate periphery into the datacenter. Adding an element of reality to many of the fabled concerns of CxOs regarding Linux, Messman recounted the conversations that Novell is having with many of existing enterprise clients. He summarized their primary concerns in the areas of support (where having a single point of contact is an imperative), security (and the question of whether source code visibility is a vulnerability), and liability.

"The number one priority on the minds of CIOs is that they want support from someone they can trust and someone with the necessary credentials in operating systems," Messman said. If that's truly an issue--which I believe it to be--Microsoft certainly isn't helping his cause. Messman referred to SCO and Microsoft as "forces that are doing their best to muddy the waters," and singled out Microsoft using ts advertising to suggest that Linux's open source nature makes it more vulnerable to hackers in China. He said Novell is directly addressing security and reliability in ways that should comfort CIOs.

Apparently, Novell intends to set the example for how open source software and proprietary software can and should co-exist. Whereas the open source part of the stack is offers the majority of the core functionality, Novell wants to bolster security and availability through its proprietary management offerings. Messman suggested that there's still plenty of room for improvement in Linux, and that it's precisely in those valued-added areas where traditionally proprietary vendors can offer products and services that address those weaknesses.

However, Messman made it clear that the success of Novell now depends on the success of open source. The company plans to contribute a significant amount of its now proprietary code to the open source community in such a way that causes even more companies to embrace and adopt it. In his keynote, Messman cited Novell's existing contributions in the areas of UDDI and LDAP.

Messman seemed to suggest that, over time, all of Novell's proprietary code could be open-sourced—an idea that I pressed him on following his keynote. "Will we ever go 100 percent open source? I doubt it." said Messman "But, as the open-source part of the stack gradually absorbs more and more functionality and moves higher and higher [in the stack], I anticipate that we'll release more code into the open source community and that our blend of proprietary vs. open source software will become more and more favorable towards open source."

With SCO having already filed suit against Novell, and threatening suit against users of Linux, Messman also said that liability was at the forefront of CIO's minds. He said indemnification is the only way to go. "Why should customers expect anything less than indemnification? They had it with the proprietary model," Messman said. He predicted that Novell's indemnification program would be emulated by other vendors.

Yesterday, Red Hat announced that it would replace any code that's found to be infringing on SCO's copyrights. It was the biggest non-announcement I've ever heard of (as if code that's found to be infringing would be left alone). I can't imagine that companies like Red Hat, Sun, IBM, and others can go much longer without explicitly indemnifying their customers from any intellectual property-related reliability, even though some of those vendors don't necessarily offer their own Linux distributions.

Further addressing the intellectual property protection issue, Messman noted the challenge of ensuring that open source code doesn't leak into its proprietary offerings, and vice versa, in a way that legally exposes either the company or its customers.

Messman seems to have a clear vision of Novell's future, including significant investments in desktop Linux as well as a Certified Linux Engineer program (reminiscent of the once prestigious Certified Netware Engineer program). Whether that's sufficient to win back many of the customers that it lost to Microsoft over the last several years is another question.

Messman's confidence and attitude left me with a sense of feistiness and direction that I haven't seen in Novell for a long time. In the end, Novell's attempt to avoid "messing it up" will come down to execution, some stunning legal setbacks to SCO, and changing the culture.

You can write to me at david.berlind@cnet.com. If you're looking for my commentaries on other IT topics, check the archives.

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