Novell: Customers are coming back

The head of Novell in the UK discusses his company's decision to offer customers indemnification and when an internal rollout of desktop Linux could be on the cards

After announcing the completion of its acquisition of SuSE, Novell this week joined the likes of HP and Sun in offering to provide financial and legal aid, or indemnification, to any of its customers that are prosecuted by SCO for licensing violations.

But having Novell in your corner comes at a price. Customers will have to purchase, if they don't own it already, Suse Linux Enterprise Server 8 as well as an upgrade protection and a qualifying technical support contract.

ZDNet UK spoke with Novell's UK MD Steve Brown  about the motivation behind the indemnification decision, integration between Suse and Ximian and seeing Novell back on top again. 

What was the motivation behind this indemnification announcement? Have you had many UK companies requesting this kind of protection?

It has come up in conversation but I wouldn't say it's the number one inhibitor to progress. But I think it is something where they are looking over their shoulder because of this pending action. I think that they might feel a little exposed if they go ahead and make a full-scale deployment because as the user they are the guys who are going to be liable for any copyright action. So what we really wanted to do was put in something that would be an enormous copyright boost for the customer, something that says, "We would like you to go ahead. We have good faith in our position on this case and should any action arise against you as an individual, then Novell will indemnify you and will either assist you in the action or fight the action on your behalf."

Given Novell's claims on parts of Unix, do you think you are in a stronger position to offer indemnification than say HP or Sun?

I think we are. The HP move back in December, was a positive move, we have also seen the Open Source Development Labs setting up a very similar fund. I think it all gives customers more and more confidence to go ahead and make the deployments they require.

How many UK customers do you think are actually going to seek out indemnification?

I don't think we have really gone that deep at the moment. We are working with the SuSE people here in the UK and talking to our own customers about it. It is still early days to get the assimilation but a lot of the events we are running around Linux have been very well attended. There are a lot of requests for pilot implementations and installations.

Do you think any companies have actually held off their Linux deployments waiting for this kind of announcement?

I think it's a factor but I don't think its the biggest piece of the jigsaw. I think there are still some pieces around application integration and the desktop client -- I think there are still some evaluations happening there. But I think it will be one of the factors now that will give them the tick in the box to move ahead.

Moving onto the completion of the SuSE acquisition, now the deal has been rubber-stamped are you planning to make any announcements around further integration between the Ximian and SuSE product sets?

There have already been some announcements around this. Bearing in mind that SuSE Linux and Ximian use the same development pool, we wanted to make sure that we gave customers very close and strong integration between those two. You will probably see some announcements around this coming out at BrainShare in the US in March.

What do think are the major factors holding back companies from deploying desktop Linux and how are you tackling them?

There are a couple. The first one, and the one that Novell brings to the party, is the ability to provide a global support infrastructure. There are also a couple of issues in terms of the user experience, you have companies who might say, "Who do I really want to move off of their Windows environment to a Ximian desktop?" I think companies will be very careful who they move. An employee who just does basic word-processing, some browser applications, and email -- those will be the users in any corporate environment who could take advantage at an early stage. However, someone who is a power user on Excel, with multiple macros running, wouldn't move initially.

To take advantage of your indemnification offer companies will need to upgrade and sign up for an extended support contract. Do you think some people could see this as Novell seeking to benefit from the threat of the SCO lawsuit?

I don't think so. It is an offer we are making to customers who make the commitment in return. A customer who takes a support contract is showing a commitment to the technology, a commitment to the company and a commitment to their future with Linux. So I think its just part of a two-way commercial arrangement.

What was the reasoning behind IBM's $50m investment in Novell? What benefit will this tighter relationship with IBM bring customers?

A lot of that is being worked through at the moment. IBM has a lot of confidence and support in what we are doing here. What we are now working through with IBM is how we can go to market. IBM, for example, provides management services into a lot of companies that have existing Novell infrastructure and it's those mutual customers who will benefit initially.

Given Novell's strong position in the Linux desktop space have you got any plans to follow IBM's lead and commit to rolling out desktop Linux internally?

I think that will come. I think it was a very positive move from what we have seen. Locally here I think people are very excited here by what you can do with the Ximian desktop and I have certainly got my staff here running several pilots here from sales people, technical people, pre-sales people who are all running and evaluating in how the Ximian desktop would work in the particular environment.

How many seats is that roughly?

It's around 10 to 15 percent of the UK team. It's been going on since we had access to the Ximian environment back in late summer last year.

Any feedback from how those trials are going?

Most people are encouraged by it. Certainly if you're a salesperson carrying a lap-top and your customer asks you exactly the same question you asked me then you can open up the laptop and show them.

When do you see a wholesale move over to Linux on the desktop?

The intention from Novell is fairly aggressive. If you look at what we have traditionally done with our own technology, which is we have always run our own business on our technology I don't see that changing as we go forward. It would be nice if we could get as many people off the Windows environment as possible so we didn't have to pay any recurring licensing costs to Microsoft.

Can we expect a similar announcement to the one made by IBM in the next six-months?

I'd say again that the monitor to watch is BrainShare. That's where a lot of these kind of announcements will be made plus the majority of our ISV people are based in Utah [the site of the conference] too.

Over the last six months you've gone from being off a lot of people's radars to being back in the game again following the Ximian and Suse acquisitions. How has that changed the culture inside Novell?

There is definitely a renewed confidence, we are running events that are being very well attended and oversubscribed. There is certainly a lot of interest, a lot of customer contact coming back to us. There are customers that haven't talked to us for a couple of years who want to engage with us again. We are seeing quite a sea change.

Some people might say that Novell has been in this position before but ended dropping the ball against Microsoft?

There are a couple of core values that Novell has that have allowed us to maintain our status as a billion dollar company for the last twenty years and I see those being transitioned into this new environment. I don't think there is a great deal to lose.