NetWare 6.5: Delivering on Linux Promise

There’s no escaping the fact that NetWare’s market share is in steep decline. Provo, Utah-based Novell’s network operating system has fallen from dominating well over 50 percent of the market in 1996 to scraping by at about 11 percent in 2002, according to figures from analyst firm IDC.

Yet despite these stark figures, NetWare is far from dead. It’s still widely respected by network administrators and remains in use by most Fortune 1000 customers at least somewhere in the organization. This summer sees the launch of NetWare 6.5, a release which promises some significant enhancements to 6.0.

Coupled with this is an increasing buzz of interest surrounding NetWare due to Novell’s increased focus on Linux. Many, in fact, are touting version 6.5 as a step on the path to integration with Linux, with full support for Linux coming in version 7.0, which is scheduled for release late next year.

So how significant is the release of NetWare 6.5, and what does it really offer? In terms of halting NetWare’s decline, the answer is almost certainly nothing — nor does Novell expect it to. But before examining the reasons for this, let’s take a look at what’s new in version 6.5.

Virtual Office and iManager 2.0

NetWare 6.5’s virtual office portal is designed to make it easier for end users to serve themselves. “In the past, NetWare has been viewed as a back-end technology, but not one which touches the end user,” says Alan Hall, solution marketing manager for NetWare.

Virtual office gives users access to iFolder, the automatically synchronizing networked folder, and iPrint, for access to printing resources anywhere, and brings collaboration tools, email, team collaboration, and self-service password control within easy, convenient reach.

The improved iManager service enables network admins to monitor and manage the entire network from any browser at any location. Previously, some components could only be managed if attached to the actual server in question, but now all parts of the network can be managed from any browser.

Many of the virtual office portal services were present in NetWare 6.0, but John Enck, vice president of server and directory strategies at Gartner, sees the latest release as enabling these services to come of age. “I see 6.5 as delivering the promise of 6.0,” he says. “The iFolder, iPrint, [and iManager] features were in 6.0, but frankly they were rough around the edges — these features will work well in 6.5.”


Mixed environments (i.e. environments with both Novell and Microsoft OSes in place) are also better catered for in 6.5 with the latest version of the Novell DirXML Starter Pack, which provides:

  • User account synchronization between eDirectory, NT Domains, and Active Directory
  • Password synchronization across these environments

This has been in demand by, and will be of great value to, the many organizations who use at least some Microsoft infrastructure in the company. “The 6.5 release [enables] out-of-the-box interoperability with Microsoft Active Directory, and this has been a key concern of many of my clients,” Enck says.

Page 2: A Commitment to Open Source

Branch Office

This new service simplifies managing services to remote offices by providing local caching and auto provisioning of IDs and other data, so that if the wide area network fails, branch offices can still use printing and other local facilities. These caches are automatically updated whenever the network is working, and can be managed centrally — a significant workload savings on maintaining multiple local replicas of IDs which needed to be synchronized regularly.

A Commitment to Open Source

Novell has continued to consolidate its commitment to open source software in v6.5, which includes Apache 2.0, MySQL, Perl, and – an exciting addition – the PHP scripting language. Version 6.5 also marks the full delivery of NetWare as an open source and J2EE application and web services platform, using the exteNd application server included in 6.5, but whether many customers will actually want to use this functionality remains to be seen.

Linux Strategy

The new features of NetWare 6.5 are obviously important, but only if people want to use the networking OS. NetWare’s decline in market share has forced Novell to indicate its future strategy for developing NetWare in order to reassure customers, and the company appears to be pinning its hopes on Linux providing the opportunities for growth that the NetWare platform so clearly lacks.

Earlier this year Novell announced the Nterprise Linux Services suite along with commitments from IBM, Dell, and HP to make the new offering available to their customers. The suite of networking services provides file, print, messaging, directory, and management services to Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SuSE Linux Enterprise Server.

Specifically, the Nterprise product integrates the identity, file, printing and messaging services found in eDirectory and DirXML, iFolder, iPrint, and NetMail, respectively. Additionally, Nterprise Linux Services will incorporate ZENworks for Servers and iManager’s management and administration services.

While separate for now, Nterprise Linux Services and NetWare will converge in the latter part of 2004 with the release of NetWare 7.0, which will run both NetWare and Linux kernels. Until that time, the new Linux services and NetWare 6.5 will continue to exist as parallel product lines.

Page 3: Linux Strategy (Continued)

So, with some network services like iFolder and iPrint having already been ported to Linux, and with the company making significant acquisitions in the Linux space — most recently, Boston, Mass-based Linux desktop management software maker Ximian — a couple of critical questions are raised. Does Novell plan to ditch the NetWare kernel at some time in the future and switch to Linux completely? And what does this mean for NetWare customers?

A clue comes from Novell itself. “For a long time NetWare has been called an OS, a platform, a kernel, or even a server, and we haven’t spent time correcting this. But we refer to it as a bundle or suite of services,” says Rick Maddox, director of product management for NetWare.

This looks suspiciously like a way of preparing the market for a shift of emphasis to Linux, which Maddox explains very simply: “NetWare 7.0 will have the option to run on the Linux or NetWare kernel.” It’s not clear what the Linux version will be called — even whether it will be branded ‘NetWare’ at all — but within two years Novell’s network services stack should be available on a choice of two platforms.

Pursuing a Linux strategy is ultimately all about getting people to use Novell’s services even if they don’t want NetWare — which NetWare’s decreasing market share clearly indicates they don’t. “The market share for NetWare has dwindled a bit for various reasons, and we have been looking to stem that with other services like ZENworks (Novell’s resource management software) and secure ID management,” says Maddox. “We are looking to expand NetWare’s reach, and the most promising avenue is through Linux. We are banking on a level of migration to Linux — both from Microsoft and from NetWare.

Analysts Approve of the Strategy

The move towards Linux makes sense for Novell, according to Dan Kusnetzky, vice president, system software at analyst IDC. “I don’t think Novell can reverse the decline of NetWare. The die is cast, and there’s no way of getting people to think about NetWare in the way they are thinking about Windows and Linux.” he says.

“People want what NetWare does, but they don’t want the product. So Novell is saying ‘Let’s quit insisting on NetWare, and let’s make our stack of software available on platforms that people do want,’” concludes Kusnetzky.

By disassociating its “suite of services” from any particular platform, Novell is hoping to have its cake and eat it too: it can keep existing NetWare customers happy by continuing development on the NetWare kernel for the time being, reassure new and existing customers that NetWare has a future (through a migration path to Linux), and potentially win over a significant number of the companies that will be moving to Linux over the next few years either from NetWare or away from an exclusively Microsoft-based environment.

So where does that leave the NetWare kernel/platform/operating system or whatever else people want to refer to it as? Earlier this month, Jack Messman, Novell’s chairman and CEO, made a statement that “NetWare is not going away. Period.”

But the truth is that at some time in the future it seems bound to be abandoned. Novell certainly doesn’t rule this out — in the long term, at least. Concludes Maddox: “In the foreseeable future we don’t see any movement away from NetWare, but we will adjust to what we see.”


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Paul Rubens

Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist specializing in enterprise networking, security, storage, and virtualization. He has worked for international publications including The Financial Times, BBC, and The Economist, and is now based near Oxford, U.K. When not writing about technology Paul can usually be found playing or restoring pinball machines.

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