Several readers sent notes claiming that I'm too hard on Novell. They don't argue about my facts as much as my conclusions. One reader, Tim Wessels, is a long-time reseller support engineer in New Hampshire. Tim told me why he and his customers are more upbeat about Novell's future than I am.
Tim works for The SymQuest Group, a regional reseller with offices in New Hampshire, Vermont and east central New York state. One of the few support people in the area with Novell certification, Tim received one of the first Certified NetWare Engineer (CNE) ratings back in 1990. He's worked with every computer operating system since DOS in 1981.
Resigned to the fact that NetWare has seen it's day, Tim says "20 years is a good run." Most of his customers have five to ten years experience with NetWare. Tim proudly says he "can't honestly remember ever walking in to a NetWare server disaster to clean up." I second that, and I don't remember a customer ever losing a single data file because of a NetWare server error. Any Windows server administrators want to make that claim?
The two customers Tim has helped move away from NetWare in the past six years weren't using a current version. Customers today aren't looking to change, but upgrading the server hardware tends to push the issue. Tim works with companies in the range of 75 to 300 employees, and few small businesses upgrade unless forced.
When the upgrade time comes, Tim feels he can ease his customers over to Novell's Open Enterprise Server running on top of a Linux kernel. This process will keep the same Novell look and feel for users, and Novell strives to make the transition easier for network managers with each update.
But Novell must do more to stay near current revenue levels than just keep the majority of their existing customers. Novell's Open Source Software, including the SuSE Linux server and desktop operating system products Novell purchased, must convince non-Novell users to put their money down. Tim's more optimistic about that happening than I am.
Tim objected to me calling SuSE a "mid-tier Linux distribution" because he sees it as one of the two Linux products big companies will deploy (Red Hat being the other). I may call that a draw. Tim believes the SuSE brand on the top of the package for the upcoming Version 10 due in September will impress the Linux faithful and is therefore the right move. I still say Novell owns SuSE and has the bigger name among non-Linux fans and putting the SuSE name first is a mistake (sorry, Tim).
Besides network operating systems, will Novell see SuSE make headway starting with the new version in September? Tim is sure it will because of the capabilities he's seen in the product. I believe the ever-sliding schedule of Vista from Microsoft will keep the window of opportunity open for Novell and all other Microsoft competitors, but rate it only a coin-flip whether Novell will take advantage.
The most famous open source software, OpenOffice, really sways users when they compare it head to head against Microsoft Office. Included with most Linux operating systems, OpenOffice 2.0 for Linux and Windows can be downloaded free. But Tim admits he has yet to convince a user to switch over from Microsoft Office. He also doubts users relying on Microsoft Exchange will switch to an open source option, even though there are many choices that are secure and reliable.
Tim sees Linux and Open Source Software sneaking under the radar into his customer's building like LANs did in the 1980s. Apache on Linux remains the leading Web server on the Internet, developers use jBoss, programmers use MySQL, and the SourceForge site bursts with great (and free) software.
Things will start cooking for Novell when the SuSE kernel Version 10 ships and builds upon the newest Open Enterprise Server operation system that came out this spring. Tim's friends working for Novell say morale is better, everyone is finally on the same page, and they're ready to go.
After all, Novell is still a billion-dollar company with about 5,800 employees. But unless the Novell marketing team and executives get smarter than they have been, it's still a coin flip whether Tim's optimism or my darker predictions will prevail. It will take another couple of years before one of us is proved correct. Let me know which way you vote.