Nat Friedman on Novell's Linux Strategy

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 9:50 PM

Novell is an interesting company, and has only become more so since it decided to dive head first into GNU/Linux last year. Nat Friedman, formerly of Novell acquired Ximian and now the veep of Novell's Linux Technologies Group took some time to answer our questions about exactly where the company is heading with GNU/Linux.

One thing that has caused endless debate on the part of both users and pundits is exactly what Novell is up to purchasing the two companies that are the best known backers of the rival GNOME and KDE desktops, Ximian and SUSE, respectively. Many have wondered if perhaps Novell had second thoughts about GNOME after buying Ximian and thus moved on to SuSE to remedy the situation. Friedman does not see the conflicting desktop alliances as an issue. “Enterprises don't care about GNOME and KDE. They care about having a desktop environment that's stable, low-cost to administer, secure, interoperable with their existing network services, and flexible,” he told OfB.

This does not mean that Novell will simply back away from both projects, Friedman explained to us. “Novell will continue to support both GNOME and KDE desktop
shells.” However, he also said that Novell's big push will be to attempt to get the various Free Software projects to work together for a more unified set of desktop technologies.

Friedman continued by pointing out the strengths Novell has gained from each acquisition. “SUSE brings Novell the world's most advanced, stable Linux platform
available,” he asserted. Friedman seems to see SUSE's biggest strength in its ability to maintain a single code base across systems ranging from desktops to mainframes for easy administration.

On the Ximian side, he asserted that the company he helped found “has been known for its expertise in making Linux desktops ready for enterprise use.” Friedman continued, “Novell is continuing Ximian's focus on usability and innovation in the ergonomics of the desktop experience, and, with the recent announcement of the open sourcing of our Microsoft Exchange connector, furthering our efforts for interoperability with Windows environments.”

But he sees the Ximian acquisition as beneficial for more than just desktop user friendliness. “Through the Ximian acquisition, Novell also acquired market-leading
Linux management tools in the Red Carpet Enterprise suite.” More specifically, “if you're deploying a large number of Linux machines, desktop or server, you need
tools that make administering them simple.” Friedman also noted that Red Carpet Enterprise has been combined with Novell ZENworks to help manage heterogeneous Windows and GNU/Linux combinations using a single set of tools.

Another thing that interested us was Novell's recent decision to relicense SUSE's YaST tool under the GNU General Public License (GPL). After years under the YaST License that had a few restrictions that kept the tool from being Free Software/Open Source, it certainly was a pleasant surprise to see Novell make the change, but we were still curious what motivated it.

According to Friedman, “YaST poses an incredible opportunity for the industry.” He continued by explaining that “today, most servers, most applications use proprietary APIs and protocols for management … with YaST, systems management vendors as well as IHVs and ISVs will have the chance to build an open source API for managing any solution stack.”

One fear that SUSE had always communicated about a Free Software release of YaST was that its competitors might use it. It seems that Novell has made a 180 turn from SUSE's view. “As YaST is released under the GPL, all players in the industry can fully embrace it, without any concerns about competing with Novell. Novell's decision to open source YaST delivers on our promise to provide vendors and customers with open standards — in this case for systems management — to make it far easier to manage systems andapplications.”

All of Novell's newly acquired portfolio is suppose to be merged together into a new desktop distribution to be released at a later date. Part of the hype surrounding this future desktop is Novell's claim that it will unify parts of KDE and GNOME. That sounded very much like what Red Hat claimed to do a few years ago with BlueCurve. Is Novell just making another BlueCurve? Friedman emphasized that this was not the case.

“Red Hat's BlueCurve is a set of common icons and menus,” he noted. “This is nice
on paper, but what matters to customers are the applications.” Instead of visual design, he explains, the concern should be “what tools are you providing me so that I can get my job done? How are you going to help me get my Windows applications running on Linux?”

Friedman continued by pointing out Novell's actions toward that goal, highlighting work on various applications that will be part of the larger puzzle. “We have a substantial investment in Novell Evolution, with a 2.0 version coming this summer.” In addition to Evolution, he also pointed out that Novell is doing “substantial” work on OpenOffice. “At Novell, we're deploying OpenOffice to 100 percent of our workforce, and this process has taught us a lot about what it takes to replace Microsoft Office.” He particularly emphasized that Novell is offering support for OpenOffice.

Another key component that Friedman highlighted is consulting. “We also have a very strong consulting organization that's helping people move from Windows to Linux.” According to him, Novell has “tools and procedures to help you move your machines, users, and data from Microsoft to Linux.”

“Don't expect a major part of our product roadmap to be about 'desktop skins,'” Friedman remarked.

So when will this roadmap and the SUSE Linux release that uses more Ximian material appear? Friedman declined to provide any specifics.

With all of this enterprise focus, SOHO users might be curious to see if they can count on Novell to continue offering the products they use or are interested in adopting. Friedman assured us that they can. “Individual users are a critical part of the way open source works.” He continued, “People with a passion for Linux, who want to try it out, learn about it, evangelize it, help their friends — these are all part of the grassroots movement that has made Linux succeed.”

What does this mean, more specifically? “We will continue our point-release products, and we will not de-emphasize them.” At the same time, there is a reason why most of the talk coming out of Novell is about enterprise deployment. “We don't see consumers as a viable market for the desktop, in a broad-based way, yet. Today, we're focused on large organizations”

Before ending our interview, we wanted to know how GNU/Linux fits into Novell's NetWare strategy. Like previous Novell statements on the issue, Friedman emphasized that GNU/Linux will not replace NetWare for those who wish to continue using that. “Our Linux product offerings give those NetWare customers who want to migrate a place to go, and still stay with Novell. We have had a very positive response from our existing customers: they are excited about our Linux strategy and glad that we have a strong growth roadmap for the future.”

We look forward to hearing more about that road map in the coming months.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@uninetsolutions. com.