In the 1980s, the name Novell was synonymous with fast, reliable file sharing. Its flagship NetWare product became the de facto standard for enterprise file sharing in personal computer networks.

In recent years, the Novell name has conjured up a different image. Stiffer competition in directory services and an industry move toward Java threaten Novell’s position. When I hear the name Novell, I think of the old man in Monty Python’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who protested being sent away by declaring, “I’m not dead yet!” But Novell has been on the brink of annihilation before, and it’s still around.

Given Novell’s propensity to reinvent itself whenever threatened by outside forces, it’s worth every CIO’s time to understand where Novell is heading. First, let’s understand how it got to where it is in the first place.

The long and winding road
To avoid the risks associated with becoming a one-trick pony, Novell expanded the NetWare product line to include two key additions in the early 90s. The first was an early attempt to turn the NetWare file system into an application server by allowing companies to write NetWare Loadable Modules (NLMs) that ran at the kernel level within NetWare.

Given the engineering and development expertise required to develop NLMs that could both run in the kernel and not destabilize the file-sharing features, very few companies were able to actually deliver NLMs. In fact, the two most widely used NLMs were databases from Novell’s Btrieve group and Oracle.

But these companies’ motivations for developing NLMs were much more political than technical or financial. The companies developing NLMs did it to help Novell compete against Microsoft, not because they believed that the technology was something that would make them money, or that the platform was technically feasible.

The Btrieve NLM was developed by SoftCraft, which Novell eventually acquired and then later divested. Oracle wanted to create a viable alternative to Microsoft’s SQL Server in the low-to-middle end of the database server market. Oracle embarked on the NLM initiative not because it believed in the technology, but because the work gave it a marketing channel (NetWare partners) that Microsoft had not yet penetrated.

The second key addition was Novell’s Netware Directory Services (NDS). When NDS was introduced, it represented a quantum leap above the main competition in directory technology at the time—Microsoft’s domain-based directory service in Windows NT 4.0.

Although Microsoft narrowed the gap with its Active Directory Services in Windows 2000, Microsoft won’t truly catch up with the ease of use and configurability of the directory system until it releases Windows .NET Server 2003. Unfortunately for Novell, the viability of a directory service has much less to do with its technical superiority and much more to do with the applications and services that use it. By integrating its Exchange and SQL Server products with its own directory service, and by garnering broad industry support for other server products (such as IBM/Lotus Notes), Microsoft has been able to make Active Directory one of the dominant directory standards.

The new Novell
As if the competition from Microsoft wasn’t enough to keep Novell busy, the rest of the industry has been rapidly moving toward Java. And Novell’s once steady file-serving business has been replaced by hardware-based storage area networks (SANs). The SANs allow data to be shared between multiple platforms rather than NetWare’s LAN-based storage paradigm.

Recognizing that the file-sharing portion of its business would soon be gone, Novell began repositioning itself as an application server, starting with NetWare 5. By adding a Java interpreter to a lightning-fast file store, Novell created a high-performing and industry-standard Java platform. And by leveraging its existing NDS technology, the platform inherited a robust, Java-enabled directory service. But other Java application server companies had a two- or three-year lead on Novell. This meant they had both a mature product and a mature channel in which to offer it. Novell had to get both, and it had to do so quickly.

First, it got a channel when it acquired Cambridge Technology Partners (CTP). CTP was one of the early thought and installation leaders in the Java server space. The Novell acquisition gave it an existing installed base to sell to and a Java-enabled NetWare server product to use when selling its solutions. But the Java technology in NetWare wasn’t technologically advanced enough to compete with WebSphere, BEA, and other Java application servers. So Novell acquired Silverstream Software last June. By including Silverstream in the core NetWare product offering, Novell finally has a compelling Java 2 Enterprise Edition-compliant server offering.

The new NetWare
When released in the first half of 2003, NetWare will represent Novell’s best chance to retain its customer base and convert it from the existing NetWare file-sharing and directory services to the next generation platform.

Given that its new product, code named Nakoma, will be released about the same time as Windows .NET Server, the comparisons are inevitable. Nakoma will include not only the J2EE 1.3-compliant server, but an integrated Web portal, XML-based directory integration that allows connectivity with Active Directory and Windows domains, and the ability to run existing open source Web servers (Apache/Tomcat), databases (MySQL), and scripting languages (Perl, PHP). With the Nakoma release and a consulting arm positioned to take it to market, Novell now has a product and a migration path for its existing installed base.

But there are still some significant challenges. Novell’s CTP group can’t compete with the hordes of Sun, IBM, and Oracle consultants pushing their J2EE technology. And Novell becomes just another J2EE application server rather than the dominant provider of a core technology like it was in the NetWare 3.x and 4.x days.

If your company already has a significant NetWare investment, and you want to move applications to the J2EE platform, the Nakoma release is well worth investigating. The rise in popularity of Java, coupled with the interest in application servers as a core enterprise server offering, has given Novell a new lease on life. And with the Nakoma release, Novell is in a great position to take advantage of it.