Novell: Fighting the Microsoft FUD machine

Former Ximian chief executive David Patrick, now a general manager at Novell, says Office is the key to breaking Microsoft's hold on the desktop

Novell's acquisition of open-source start-up Ximian almost a year ago marked a turning point for the networking giant. Losing out to Microsoft in the struggle for domination of the network operating-system market precipitated a downward slide that saw the company pushed to the peripheries of directory and security software.

But the rise and rise of Linux, together with some savvy management by newly appointed chief executive Jack Messman, offered the side-lined firm a much needed toe-hold back into the big league. Snapping up Ximian, a provider of desktop and network management software for Linux and Unix, followed closely by the SuSE Linux distribution, at a stroke put the former proprietary provider into the bosom of the open-source community.

Through Ximian's Desktop software, exchange-compatible groupware application Evolution, and Red Carpet software-management tool, Novell has the potential to make serious in-roads into Microsoft's domination of the desktop. The main offensive will begin this summer with the launch of Novell's business desktop which will combine the best of Ximian's management tools with SuSE's desktop product.

Novell is also pushing forward two high-profile initiatives in which Ximian and its developers have played a central role: Gnome, one of the two main graphical user environments used with Linux and Unix desktops, and Mono, which allows applications written using Microsoft .Net to run on Unix and Linux.  Novell's Mono is due to start shipping in late July although the product is already available as a test download.

ZDNet UK caught up with ex-Ximian chief executive David Patrick, now Novell's general manager responsible for the resource management, and Alan Murray, director of Novell Resource Management, to discuss the repercussions of the acquisition 12 months down the line and plans to inject competition back into the desktop.

What do you see as the major inhibitors of greater penetration of desktop Linux and what is Novell doing to overcome them?
Patrick: We are working on our next-generation Linux desktop, we are going to take the best from SuSE Desktop and Ximian's into one, along with adding Novell's product functionality into a new product due to ship later this year. City of Munich has confirmed that they are holding tight now with their decision to go for Linux.

Why do you think the public sector seems to be leading the charge here?
Patrick: The public sector has more things driving decisions politically. I think that a lot of countries like the fact that Linux is an open platform and they can hire their own nationals to maintain it and pour their own dollars into their own economy. Even in Munich they have acknowledged that the cost of porting to Microsoft will be higher because of transitional costs but long term they believe it is the right decision; long term they have eliminated this dependency on a company with a closed platform.

It seems that those same factors would motivate private companies -- so why aren't they?
Patrick: Well, they will but it's just that they are on a different time scale -- they can wait until the platform matures a bit. There are many pilots going on inside private organisations and the interest level is very, very high.

What needs to change in order to encourage more private companies to step up and announce their support?
Patrick: There are several things that are important here, for example: ease of use, tight integration, and interoperability with Microsoft's environments. We know that these are going into shops that support Microsoft, so that means supporting Microsoft file formats, being able to talk to Exchange server -- which we do with Evolution. We are also integrating with all of Novell's back-end services such as GroupWise and iFolder.

The first big global deployment of desktop Linux will be Novell. We are moving 6000 employees over to Linux. By 1 August, everyone in the company is going to be on Open Office and then, by this autumn, roughly half the company will be on Linux and the rest we are finishing off as soon as possible after that.

But what about all the intensive Excel users -- the functionality isn't there in OpenOffice at the moment to support them
Murray: That is probably the last barrier that has to fall, but the approach we have decided to take is to move to OpenOffice and port all our stuff over. Once we have broken the Microsoft Office dependency than breaking the operating-system dependency is trivial.

Patrick: The hardest piece is the Office layer. We are also using ourselves as a case-study and using our migration to develop a set of migration tools for companies. Everything we do we are adding to our consultancy practice to help other customers move over. The core thing is application support and we are focusing on the core seven applications such as OpenOffice and Mozilla and others such as Evolution our groupware suite.

If you look at all the FUD that Microsoft has levied against Linux, it is all about cost of deployment, cost of management, cost of administration. The reason the costs are lower on Windows is because the management tools are more mature. We are now bringing all that to the Linux platform and the cost of administrating and deploying is going to come way down.


Do you think the more zealous elements of the Linux community, who regard the Linux or Windows debate as some idealistic struggle, have scared away some potential corporate customers?
Patrick: No, the biggest IT company in the world is IBM and it hasn't scared them off. There is no sign of IBM's position on Linux weakening at all. Things like SCO came in and created a little bubble but apart from that…

SCO seems to have gone quiet recently. What's your feeling on how that whole situation is going to play out?
Patrick: At this point SCO has not produced any credible evidence that there is anything infringing inside of Linux. It has gone quiet because they have failed to produce anything that would make anyone nervous. Novell is indemnifying their customer base, which is a big jump. We have finally got to the point where we are going to put up or shut up and we put up.

What is your take on Microsoft's involvement with SCO -- do you think they were really pulling the strings in the background, as some people have suggested given the links to SCO funding company BayStar?
Patrick: Sure. Why not? Why wouldn't they? It is a threat.

It's almost a year since you were acquired by Novell. Has there been any issues integrating the two company cultures?
Murray: You take a small start-up with heavy Web-services architecture, used to collaborating on the Net, and you have a relatively staid enterprise software development methodology on the other side. The first thing you think is that they are going to mix together like oil and water. In the reality it has been just the opposite. It's like all this young blood has gone into revitalising certain engineering groups.

Did you have any misgivings about being acquired by Novell -- a company that had a very dominant position once but lost its way through a combination of mismanagement and locking horns with Microsoft?
Patrick: It was our choice to do it. We had independent secure financing from VCs so we weren't at any risk of not getting venture funding and we has also talked to a number of companies about potentially partnering. We had a number of very bright open-source engineers with visions of getting Linux deployed but at a certain point we realised that as a start-up we weren't going to be able to get this deployed enterprise wide and globally.

Patrick: We needed to combine ourselves with a world-class enterprise software company but how many of the surviving enterprise class companies could help us? The list wasn't very long. Novell was in a unique position, extremely well financed, $700m in the bank, Jack Messman had done an extremely good job of stabilising the organisation. This was a company that can potentially turn the corner now but it needed a catalyst and that was Linux. We all agreed we needed a distribution so even before Ximian was acquired it was on the table that we would have to go to the next step and buy SuSE.

That was a condition of your being acquired by Novell?
Patrick: Well, it wasn't a condition, not like a purchasing sales agreement, but it was on the table that we had to do that and it was all agreed conceptually.

Murray: Don't think of that so much as condition of sales as much as it was two companies coming together to create a joint strategy. We said these are the things that we can do together but, hey, there is still a piece missing which is the distribution.