Novell Relishes Pact with Microsoft

Justin Steinman discusses Linux indemnification and Novell's Deal with Redmond.

For more than six months, Novell Inc. was Microsoft's exclusive partner for Linux distribution. Then last month, at the TecháEd conference in Orlando, Fla., Microsoft announced the first of several agreements that Redmond says will indemnify customers from patent infringement liability if they used protected iterations of Linux with Windows.

RDN's Executive Editor, Features Jeffrey Schwartz talked about the Microsoft-Novell deal with Justin Steinman, Novell's director of product marketing for Linux and open platform solutions, at TecháEd. Steinman was involved in negotiating the terms of the deal and offers his insights on Microsoft's actions, the impact of the agreements on Linux development and more.

Is the fact that Microsoft has made agreements with other players a good thing for Novell?
I think while the Xandros agreement has some elements of the agreement that they signed with Novell, it lacks other pieces of it like the certificate component, where Microsoft is reselling certificates customers can redeem for copies of SuSE Linux Enterprise Server. That component's kind of unique to the Novell deal.

As part of our agreement, Microsoft purchased from Novell $240 million of certificates that customers can redeem for subscriptions to SuSE Linux Enterprise Server with support. Microsoft has been selling those certificates to customers as part of mixed Windows-Linux deals. Xandros didn't get anything like that. We also have some of the unique stuff around virtualization with Microsoft. We weren't surprised by this news. They said publicly from day one they wanted to sign up some other partners as part of their open source ecosystem.

So is this a good thing?
It's part of Microsoft's business strategy. I think we'll leave it up to the market to decide. All I'm capable of commenting on is why Novell did the deal. It was important to deliver this technical interoperability between Windows and Linux. It's been borne out by the fact that in the six months of the deal so far, Novell has invoiced $91 million of the $240 million that Microsoft committed to us in the agreement. That's roughly 38 percent in six months of a five-year deal.

Justin Steinman "I don't think we're at a point where Microsoft is going to endorse Mono or recommend it, but we're at a point where they acknowledge it's there and because of our agreement, it's a better part of the ecosystem now."
Justin Steinman, Director of Product Marketing for
Linux and Open Platform Solutions, Novell Inc.

What was your reaction about Microsoft's claim that Linux violated some of its patents? Was that a surprise to you?
We generally don't think comments like that are productive. For us, this deal is really about making customers comfortable with buying Linux, and our series of agreements with Microsoft and the interoperability we're delivering with them helps customers feel more confident when they deploy SuSE Linux Enterprise Server.

Has that comfort level slipped since this disclosure by Microsoft about the patents came out?
I think it's been completely irrelevant because Novell had the coverage.

So what effect does that have on the new GPL?
It was grandfathered in as of the one that came out [May 31]. The GPL says any deal signed prior to March 28, 2007 is exempt from section 11, paragraph 5, and -- even in his notes -- Richard Stallman said he decided not to punish Novell.

How do you see Novell capitalizing on that?
We're really about trying to remove any customer objections to buying Linux, so offering customers peace of mind is a good thing. We've taken the issue off the table for customers.

We've been very clear since day one: We don't think there are any intellectual property violations inside of Linux. We've agreed to disagree with Microsoft on this topic as noted in our Nov. 20 letter, which was put out just 18 days after we signed the contract. It was re-iterated [in May] when we released the documents as part of our SEC filing. Customers have told us, 'I don't know whether to believe you or Microsoft, just make it go away.' So that's what we did with the agreement with Microsoft: We made it go away for customers.

Even if Microsoft's contention about the patent infringements is valid, you could tell customers it's irrelevant because they're indemnified?
Yes. But we want to make clear we don't think [Microsoft's] contentions are valid.

What does all of this mean to those who manage corporate development teams? What are the implications of this from a development perspective?
Novell has a theory that in three to five years there will be two dominant IT stacks in any IT infrastructure: J2EE on Linux and .NET on Windows. I think any developer will tell you that certain applications will run better on Java and certain applications will run better on Windows, so we're offering customers the opportunity to pick the preferred operating system for their favorite application.

And thanks to the bi-directional virtualization we're offering, you can run that application on any OS-SuSE Linux or Microsoft Windows. If you're really envisioning a world where virtualization will take over, and you're a .NET developer but your CIO has decided to standardize on Linux as his core host OS, you can now write your .NET application and you've got one of two choices. First off you can run it on Mono on top of Linux, but if you don't want to run it on Mono you can run it on Windows Server as a virtual guest on top of the SuSE Linux Enterprise Server.

Similarly, if you're a J2EE developer and your company has standardized on Windows as its core operating system, with this solution, you'll be able to virtualize your Linux-based application and then run it on a guest on top of Viridian [the code-name for Microsoft's virtualization technology in Windows Server 2008].

As you know, Viridian speaks Windows, and Xen speaks Linux. If you were to put another operating system on top, either Windows on top of Xen or Linux on top of Viridian, there are going to be performance implications. Through the technical collaboration we're doing, we're making enhancements to our respective hypervisors. Xen in the case of SuSE and Viridian in the case of Windows to optimize them, so Linux can run as a guest on top of Viridian in nearly the same performance as Windows, and Windows can run as a guest on top of Xen at nearly the same performance as Linux.

What kind of outreach are you doing toward the development community?
We're doing a series of outreach. We realize the importance of the developer community -- Linux is all about the community. Working with developers is a skill Novell has, whether it's from the open SuSE community or the Mono community.

Mono essentially enables you to run .NET applications on Linux. That's a project pretty much funded by Novell, 100 percent open source and has a fair amount of traction. It's been a rebel attendee at all of the different Microsoft conferences throughout the years and thanks to this agreement with Microsoft, they're not standing outside -- they're part of the conference. I don't think we're at a point where Microsoft is going to endorse Mono or recommend it, but we're at a point where they acknowledge it's there and because of our agreement, it's a better part of the ecosystem now.

What other key development efforts do you have?
For us it's the open SuSE community. The way Linux is developed is obviously much different than Windows. Linux is very community-driven. People are off developing the code that they find interesting, and we package it up, kind of match up what exists in the community versus what customers are wanting, and then Novell employs a stack of 300 open source developers to kind of fill in the gaps. We scale it for performance and security, test it and ship it as our Linux platform.

Right now we're in the heyday of SuSE Linux Enterprise 10, but we're also starting to think about SuSE Linux Enterprise 11, which will come out sometime in the late 2008 -- early 2009 time frame. We're trying to figure out what features will be in SuSE Linux Enterprise 11. The community will be a heavy influencer in that. Xen virtualization was a community-based project. There's another one called KVM; we're trying to see what coalesces around that community, which will determine whether it makes it into SuSE Enterprise Linux 11 or if the community says, 'Eh, you know what -- we'll stick with Xen.'

Your guess is as good as mine as to which way the community will be. I have one voice out of hundreds of thousands in the community. People a lot smarter than me will be driving those types of decisions.

Another big area we'll be investing in will be the Linux desktop, which we think is ready for prime time.

If you look at what we've done with the Open Office, we ship a suite that has 90 percent of the functionality of the Microsoft Office suite. The fully loaded price of a SuSE Linux Enterprise desktop with an Open Office Suite included is roughly 10 percent of the price of a Windows Vista desktop plus Microsoft Office 2007. So we have 90 percent of the functionality at 10 percent of the price.

There's always some innovation that Microsoft will have at the cutting edge because of the billions of dollars Microsoft puts into R&D, but the basic office worker does six things: Web, e-mail, instant messaging, word processing, spreadsheets and presentations.

Novell has invested in the Linux desktop for Windows interoperability. We're developing translators that enable you to share documents between Open Office and Microsoft Office. You can authenticate against Active Directory infrastructure and have a pretty interesting graphical user experience, including a three dimensional queue that you can work on.

How long did it take to bring the deal together?
The first call was made by our CEO Ron Hovsepian to Kevin Turner a little over a year ago, roughly late April or early May. It went back and forth and then it was announced Nov. 2, 2006.

What was the most difficult part?
All of it. It's a three-pronged deal: There's the intellectual property agreement, there was a technical collaboration and there was the business collaboration.

Was there a point you thought it would never happen?
Yes -- about once a week. This was groundbreaking landmark stuff. In the end the customer endorsements have been fantastic; WalMart, HSBC, Deutsche Bank and AIG. These are big brand names of people who not only procured SuSE Linux through this partnership, but also felt comfortable enough to speak out for it.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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