Monday, February 05, 2007

Novell and Microsoft: The End-User Perspective

Several people have asked me to write a post on the recently announced partnership between Novell and Microsoft. My guess is that I will make as many enemies as friends with this post. People seem to fall pretty clearly on one side or the other on this topic. Thus, I encourage you to post your comments on this.

I am not an expert on business or technology. I am a technology director who manages a network of about 1000 users across 525 computers and a 4 server Citrix farm. My concern is for neither Novell nor Microsoft. My concern is for my teachers, staff, students and parents. My job is to support their pursuits; make it easier, faster and more attainable.

Though I have my concerns about Microsoft, we heavily use Microsoft Active Directory, Server 2003 and Exchange 2003. I believe many of the applications my users need to do their job well requires Windows-based software. Love it or hate it, we need Microsoft in our environment.

We also (as this site explains) heavily rely on SUSE Linux. I love that my students are exposed to open source software. I love that they are able to use the open source community and human readable files to solve their own problems. I love that the GPL allows me to afford to place a laptop in the hands of each student. Some of our users had trouble dealing with the learning curve of transitioning from Windows to Linux and some open source applications lack the polish of proprietary, Windows-based alternatives. However, we believe that the kind of access 1:1 mobile computing allows is precisely what our students need to succeed in the world. Thus, love it or hate it, we need Linux in our environment.

So, here is the ugly little conclusion that some people in both the Linux and Microsoft camps don't like to hear: We need Microsoft and Linux to work together in a way that makes sense for my end-users!

Oh, I can hear the grumbles from some of my readers already!

Most of the open source community recognizes the value of Linux and also recognizes, in varying degrees, that Microsoft is needed in many end-to-end enterprise solutions. For a further discussion on our impressions of the value of Linux, please read the Why Linux? post below. However, this is not the question many open source advocates have. Their question is why SUSE and especially why SUSE after Novell has decided to "dance with the devil?"

Why SUSE?
Linux is extremely powerful and varying distributions lend themselves to varying situations. We use Debian for a single app RT Helpdesk server. This was provided to us as a virtual machine from our good friends at Clovis School District. It does what it's supposed to. It's lightweight and runs like a champ. I know schools that use the K12LTS for labs and plenty of hobbyists and engineers that use Ubuntu on the desktop. The beauty of Linux is that is can be tweaked to meet your individual needs.

I needed an enterprise solution that was supported by people who understand schools. That solution needed to cover the needs of mobile users of varying skills, provide enterprise caliber user back-up solution, like iFolder, and provide a stable technology road map. I am not a Linux expert, though I have become quite comfortable over the last two years. I needed a distribution that would work for me on the desktop and server and come with a tremendous amount of support to compliment innovation. SUSE provided this.

SUSE also comes with Novell, which has years of experience working with Windows through their Netware platform and has a best of breed data linking tool with Identity Management. They also had (past tense) Jeremy Allison, the leader of the Samba project (more on this later). Few Linux partners offered such a robust level of support for our enterprise.

I suspect other IT leaders seeking enterprise solutions are also looking for that support, reliability and technology road map. Though SUSE may not be the strongest Linux appliance, web server or desktop (for really high end users) my personal opinion is that it is the best solution for the enterprise.

Why is Microsoft working with just one partner?
Why? Because they are a business and a competitor to the platform. Microsoft can no longer deny the fact that Linux is growing like crazy in the data center. They can no longer tell themselves that the world will be all Windows. Thus, they need to learn to "keep their enemies close." But, does anyone expect Microsoft to become regular contributing members to the open source community and embrace the GPL? Of course not! Also, for the sake of your own retirement funds, you should probably hope not as well! :-)

They need to pick a Linux "partner" that makes sense for them. Microsoft isn't in the network appliance business (to a large degree) and Linux desktop isn't really competing with Windows in the retail market...yet, so who would you partner with if you were Microsoft? Novell and SUSE makes the most sense.

Why should I not hate Novell now?
A lot of people in the open source community are pretty upset with Novell for dealing with Microsoft. Jeremy Allison left Novell over the matter. His core focus was making Linux work with Windows systems through Samba. In an interview with BoycottNovell.com, Jeremy states,
"I’m sad because I don’t think we needed to do this. We were gaining a lot of traction with SUSE Linux desktop, and from my perspective (admittedly not high up in the company hierarchy with views on revenue) we were winning. We had a good product, I was always extremely busy with new customer requirements, and was personally involved in winning new customers for SLED and SLES. It just feels to me like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory."

I had the pleasure of working with Jeremy for a day last summer. We helped him discover a few bugs in Samba through our experiences with our laptop program. He is a thoughtful, brilliant, funny and humble individual. I have great respect for him and his work. I also respect his opinions.

However, I'm not sure I see the world as a Linux versus Microsoft battle. Samba was (and probably will continue to be) able to make Linux and Windows talk better than Novell or Microsoft can. They have the experience and the open source community backing them up. However, the two conditions are not mutually exclusive. Samba can continue to do this as can a Microsoft venture (with Novell, another Linux partner, or by themselves).

What can we expect from this venture?
Well, a lot has been promised. The key benefits center around three areas. First, we are promised smoother virtualization so you can run Linux on Windows or Windows on Linux. Next, we can expect better data linking across federated Windows and Linux systems using tools like Novell's Identity Management. Lastly, we should see improved file compatibility between Windows and Linux systems.

Now we haven't really seen anything out of this partnership yet. It is too early to really expect anything out of this partnership other than increased sales based on consumer confidence and the financial incentives of the deal. Walmart's major SUSE-Microsoft purchase is an example of this. However, I think Novell is on the hook to benefit the open source community with this deal and I think they will.

Folks at Novell like Nat Friedman and Guy Lunardi are really committed to the open source community. Novell has a track record of giving back to the community. They open sourced iFolder and are the second largest contributor to Open Office.

So what is this end user's perspective?
The jury is still out. However, I think the partnership offers promising opportunities to end users. SUSE already offers me a solid enterprise caliber desktop and server that works quite well with my Microsoft Active Directory and Exchange servers. My users, with the help of Citrix, can do almost anything anyone with either Linux or Windows can do. My hope and dream is that this partnership will yield application level virtualization, allowing me to run Windows applications seamlessly on Linux laptops without the use of Citrix. I hope it will also yield fluid file compatibility with easily managed cross-platform default applications. My hope is also that Novell maintains its commitment to innovation, while continuing to support standards based interoperability with Windows and Mac platforms. These are lofty goals for Novell and the partnership. I place a great deal of the burden in Novell's hands. However, I think they are capable of a lot more of it than many give them credit.