Goodbye, Novell

Wayne Rash

When Novell announced that it had agreed to be acquired by Attachmate, someone remarked that they felt a chill passing through the Internet. While the company doesn't get a great deal of mindshare these days, it was critical to the development of the enterprise that we know today. It was Novell that made networking popular and open to every platform. It was Novell that developed the concept of directory services. And it was Novell that brought us the idea of readily available, reliable network servers long before Microsoft or anyone else was a significant player.

Now this latest move makes me think of a once-great ship driven onto the beach so that its bones can be picked clean by the ship breakers. When Novell is subsumed by its respective buyers, there may be a few recognizable parts still visible, but the once-great Novell will be gone. Part of the deal will be SuSE Linux, which Attachmate says will remain. Other parts, mostly patents on software related to networking and UNIX, will go to a consortium headed by Microsoft. I don't know yet what will happen to Groupwise or NetWare.

While nobody (except me) remembers NetWare, there was a time when this network operating system gained legendary status. This was the NOS that never went down, was never infected by malware, and continued to run as long as the hardware beneath it kept going. Stories have made the rounds over the years about Novell NetWare servers that were found in sealed rooms or locked closets years after they were first installed, forgotten, but still running and doing their jobs. While it's impossible to verify those stories, there are enough that one has to assume there's some truth in them.

It's not clear what will happen to Novell's branded software, although Attachmate has a long history of supporting software for niche markets long after you'd think they had died. It's still selling terminal emulators, for example, for computers that most people don't know exist. So perhaps NetWare has a future there.

The open source community is already getting assurances that Linux will be just fine after the acquisition. It may be that Microsoft wants to make sure that it is, and it may be that it's a solid enough business that whomever ends up with SuSE will want to make sure it stays alive. But the other bits and pieces of Novell that remain in the hands of the ship breakers have a destiny that's less clear. Before long, as its pieces yield to dismantling, those parts will go somewhere, but it's not likely anyone will ever find out for sure exactly where that was.

Novell's ending is particularly sad because ultimately it will be so anonymous. Goodbye, Novell-it's a shame to lose you.

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