RealTime IT News

Analysts: Ximian a Good Fit with Novell

As networking specialist Novell continues its struggle to take the battle to Microsoft despite increasing marginalization over the years, analysts agree that Monday's move to take a vanguard position in the open source movement with the acquisition of Ximian raises some interesting possibilities.

"I think it's a good fit overall," IDC analyst Al Gillen told internetnews.com. "Novell has certainly been trying to get themselves aligned with the Linux market."

The acquisition of Boston, Mass.-based Ximian brings Novell a couple of recognized leaders in the open source community, with footing in both the GNOME and Mono projects. It also brings the company a number of technologies that analysts think will be highly complementary with Novell's existing products, specifically Ximian Connector and Red Carpet Enterprise software.

"[Novell] has got a strong background in the systems management tools, but one of the things they didn't have was a strong background in Linux," Gillen said. "By combining Red Carpet with ZENworks, there are really some interesting possibilities. You've got to look at Novell as a provider of services and software for other environments than [its own] NetWare."

Novell's ZENworks product line provides policy-based resource management, allowing organizations to manage the lifecycle of their desktops, laptops, servers and handheld devices by automating IT management processes throughout diverse systems. Red Carpet Enterprise, on the other hand, provides centralized software management of Linux servers and desktops, with the ability to manage updates across multiple Linux distributions.

Evans Data Corp.'s Linux analyst, Nicholas Petreley, agreed with Gillen's assessment of the ZENworks/Red Carpet combination.

"That sounds like a good match to me," he told internetnews.com. "I was really impressed with ZENworks. Unfortunately, Novell hasn't been able to sell themselves out of a paper bag for years."

Petreley also saw the combination of Ximian Connector with GroupWise, Novell's answer to Microsoft Exchange, as a key component of the deal.

Ximian Connector is an extension to the Ximian Evolution product (which integrates email, calendaring, contact management and task lists into a single application) that allows the application to connect to corporate communications architectures like Exchange and Sun ONE. Ahead of the acquisition, Novell had already begun working on client-side Ximian Connector extensions to allow Evolution to function as the client for GroupWise.

Confirming the company's intentions for a renewed push behind GroupWise, it announced Tuesday that it will deliver GroupWise for Linux in the first half of 2004, with the GroupWise client and server services running entirely on Linux. In April, the company announced a forthcoming Java-based GroupWise client for Linux. The company said the GroupWise Cross-Platform Client is under beta testing now, and the server component will enter beta testing in September. With the Ximian acquisition, the company also said GroupWise will fully support and integrate with the Ximian Evolution and collaboration client through Ximian Connector.

"GroupWise has been cross-platform enabled for more than a decade, and now Novell is expanding its scope to embrace the rapidly growing Linux market," Chris Stone, vice chairman of Novell, said Tuesday. "GroupWise for Linux brings the reliability and rich feature set of a proven collaboration environment to the Linux enterprise, giving customers the ability to choose the network platform they want while still being able to take advantage of a world-class enterprise collaboration solution. That sums up Novell's Linux strategy: proven Novell network services and support on the customer's platform of choice."

Petreley chimed in on the Ximian acquisition, "I think it's about Evolution and Connector and whatever they're going to use on the back-end. They're obviously going for the whole solution, not just the client."

Gillen added, "In theory, the Connector can also work to connect Linux desktops to Novell's GroupWise product. Novell has a chance to build its collaborative computing business through that Connector."

But even with new technologies, Novell still has to execute, and both Petreley and Gillen said that has been its weak point for years.

"The downside is that Novell has not historically done very well with its strategies," Petreley said. "It could be that, even if they have the most brilliant idea on the planet, they're not going to be able to execute it effectively to make it work."

A standout example is Novell's acquisition of the WordPerfect word processor, Quattro Pro spreadsheet, and Paradox database from Borland in the early 1990s in an effort to go head-to-head with Microsoft. The company failed to make headway with the applications, bundled into a productivity suite, and eventually sold the bundle to Corel.

During the 1990s, the company went from a software juggernaut poised to go toe-to-toe with Microsoft, boasting large marketshare and a hefty piece of the reseller channel, to a marginal player struggling to stay in the market. It had the UnixWare and NetWare operating systems, and Microsoft had not yet come to dominate the office productivity applications space as it does currently. Since then, it has steadily lost ground to Microsoft.

"My only concern is that Novell has been down and out for so long, can they really recapture the public attention and confidence?" Petreley asked.

Still, the acquisition also gives Novell some street cred in the form of Miguel de Icaza and Nat Friedman, co-founders of Ximian. The two helped initiate the open source GNOME and Mono projects, and both Gillen and Petreley agreed that Novell could do worse than giving de Icaza and Friedman the power to draft the company's Linux strategy.

"Certainly, the Ximian guys are in a fairly good position to understand the needs of the Linux user, and that's something that will help Novell," Gillen said.

Novell is bringing the entire Ximian staff on board as the Novell Ximian Services business unit at Novell. Friedman, a senior vice president at Ximian, will step in as vice president of research and development at the new unit. de Icaza, Ximian's CTO, will retain that position at the new unit. Ximian President and CEO David Patrick will step in as general manager.

Petreley said there's a good chance that putting the resources of Novell behind de Icaza and Friedman, both of whom are still well-respected contributors to the GNOME project, could inject new life into that project, which an Evans Data Corp. survey shows has begun flagging in its competition with KDE, the other major Linux desktop.

The GNOME project develops an open source desktop which includes a set of development tools; file, desktop management and help systems; and a set of applications, including spreadsheets, word processors, Web browsers, image editors and music players. Ximian offers the GNOME desktop as the core of its Ximian Desktop 2 (XD2) Linux desktop environment.

Evans Data's Summer 2003 Linux Development Survey, published Monday, shows GNOME slipping against KDE. While the two desktops had remained more or less neck-and-neck since spring 2000, Evans Data's latest survey found KDE was now the desktop of choice of 42 percent of respondents, and it is being used in 65 percent of cases. GNOME has dropped to 37 percent of respondents and appears in 56 percent of cases, according to the survey. The survey suggested that the decrease in interest in GNOME is due to the fact that it has been repeatedly redefined and repositioned, making its feature set a bit stagnant. The survey said that if the latest redesign "takes" and GNOME development stabilizes, it will likely regain the interest it has lost.

Petreley said that leadership from Novell on the project may be just the edge GNOME needs.

"What GNOME really needs is good leadership and direction," he said. "It's been suffering from 'too many cooks syndrome' for so long now. Somebody's got to step in there and lay down some design rules. If Novell can do that, they've got a great asset on their hands."

Perhaps less strategic, according to Petreley, is Ximian's leadership in the Mono project, which strives to develop a Microsoft .NET clone by providing tools that can allow applications developed using Microsoft .NET to run on Linux, Unix and other platforms without modification.

Petreley suggested that Novell's backing could lend the Mono project additional credibility, though he also noted that he feels Mono is "a solution looking for a problem."

"Just being Novell gives them more credibility if they get into a patent or legal fight with Microsoft over Mono," Petreley said. "It gives me more confidence in Mono. I had very little confidence in it."

Petreley explained that Microsoft holds patents on a lot of the technologies that underlie Mono, and could present legal challenges if it feels Mono is gaining too much share.

But on the whole, he said he sees little real need for Mono.

"I just don't see the point," he said. "It makes more sense to go with a Java framework. Mono's greatest strength is essentially the ability to use multiple languages and generate same byte code. It's a language neutral environment. There are places where it can be useful, but in those places developers just use wrappers. To create an entire framework with the goal of making it language neutral just seems like 'we're going to build this based on the gee-whiz idea that we can do it, not that anyone necessarily wants it."