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Another Requiem: Attachmate Acquires Novell

And so, another founder of the computing industry as we know it today officially bites the dust. A few days ago, Attachmate announced that it was acquiring Novell – and the biggest of the PC LAN companies will be no more.

I have more fond memories of Novell than I do of Progress, Sun, or any of the other companies that have seen their luster fade over the last decade. Maybe it was the original facility in Provo, with its Star Trek curving corridors and Moby Jack as haute cuisine, just down the mountain from Robert Redford’s Sundance. Maybe it was the way that when they sent us a copy of NetWare, they wrapped it in peanuts instead of bubble wrap, giving us a great wiring party. Or maybe it was Ray Noorda himself, with his nicknames (Pearly Gates and Ballmer the Embalmer) and his insights (I give him credit for the notion of coopetition).

But if Novell were just quirky memories, it wouldn’t be worth the reminiscence. I firmly believe that Novell, more than any other company, ushered out the era of IBM and the Seven Dwarves, and ushered in the world of the PC and the Internet.

Everyone has his or her version of those days. I was at Prime at the time, and there was a hot competition going on between IBM at the high end and DEC, Wang, Data General, and Prime at the “low end”. Even with the advent of the PC, it looked as if IBM or DEC might dominate the new form factor; Compaq was not a real competitor until the late 1980s.

And then along came the PC LAN companies: 3Com, Banyan, Novell. While IBM and the rest focused on high end sales, and Sun and Apollo locked up workstations, the minicomputer makers’ low ends were being stealthily undercut by PC LANs, and especially from the likes of Novell. The logic was simple: the local dentist, realtor, or retailer bought a PC for personal use, brought it to the business, and then realized that it was child’s play – and less than $1K – to buy LAN software to hook the PCs in the office together. It meant incredibly cheap scalability, and when I was at Prime it gutted the low end of our business, squeezing the mini makers from above (IBM) and below (Novell).

There was never a time when Novell could breathe easily. At first, there were Banyan and 3Com; later, the mini makers tried their hand at PC LANs; then came the Microsoft partnership with IBM to push OS/2 LAN Manager; and finally, in the early 1990s, Microsoft took dead aim at Novell, and finally managed to knock them off their perch.  However, until the end, NetWare had two simple ideas to differentiate it, well executed by the “Magic 8” (the programmers doing fundamental NetWare design, including above all Drew Major):  the idea that to every client PC, the NetWare file system should look like just another drive, and the idea that frequently accessed files should be stored in main memory on the server PC, so that, as Novell boasted, you could get a file faster from NetWare than you could from your own PC’s hard drive.

Until the mid 1990s, analysts embarrassed themselves by predicting rapid loss of market share to the latest competitor. Every year, surveys showed that purchasing managers were planning to replace their NetWare with LAN Server, with LAN Manager, with VINES; and at the end of the year, the surveys would show that NetWare had increased its hold, with market share in the high 70s. Why? Because what drove the market was purchases below the purchasing manager’s radar screen (less than the $10K that departments were supposed to report upstairs). One DEC employee told me an illustrative story: while DEC was trying to mandate in-house purchase of its PC LAN software, the techies at DEC were expanding their use of NetWare by leaps and bounds, avoiding official notice by “tunneling” NetWare communications as part of the regular DEC network. The powers that be finally noticed what was going on because the tunneled communications became the bulk of all communications across the DEC network.

In the early 1990s, Microsoft finally figured out what to do about this. Shortly after casting off OS/2 and LAN Manager, Microsoft developed its own, even more basic, PC LAN software that at first simply allowed sharing across a couple of “peer” PCs. Using this as a beachhead, Microsoft steadily developed Windows’ LAN capabilities, entirely wrapped in the Windows PC OS, so that it cost practically nothing to buy both the PC and the LAN. This placed Novell in an untenable position, because what was now driving the market was applications developed on top of the PC and LAN OS, and NetWare had never paid sufficient attention to LAN application development; it was easy for Microsoft to turn Windows apps into Windows plus LAN apps, while it was very hard for Novell to do so.

Nevertheless, Novell’s core market made do with third-party Windows apps that could also run on NetWare, until the final phase of the tragedy: Windows 2000. You see, PC LANs always had the limitation that they were local. The only way that PC LAN OSs could overcome the limitations of geography was to provide real-time updates to resource and user data stored in multiple, geographically separate “directories”: in effect, to carry out scalable multi-copy updates on data. Banyan had a pretty good solution for this, but Microsoft created an even better one in Windows 2000, well before Novell’s solution; and after that, as the world shifted its attention to the Internet, Novell was not even near anyone’s short list for distributed computing.

Over the last decade, Novell has not lacked good solutions; its own directory product, administrative and security software, virtualization software, and most recently what I view as a very nice approach to porting Windows apps to Linux and mainframes. Still, a succession of CEOs failed to turn around the company, and, in the ultimate irony, Attachmate, with strengths and a long history itself in remote PC software, has decided to take on Novell’s assets.

I think that the best summing up of Novell’s ultimate strategic mistake was the remark of one of its CEOs shortly after assuming command: “Everyone thinks about Microsoft as the biggest fish in the ocean. It is the ocean.” In other words, Novell would have done better by treating Microsoft as the vendor of the environment that Novell had to support, and aiming to service that market, rather than trying to out-feature Microsoft. But everyone else made that mistake; why should Novell have been any different?

We are left not only with Novell’s past contributions to computing, but also with the contributions of its alumni. Some fostered the SMB market with products like the Pervasive database; some were drivers of the UNIX standards push and later the TP monitors that led to today’s app servers. One created the Burton Group, a more technically-oriented analyst firm that permanently improved the quality of the analyst industry.

And we are also left with an enthusiasm that could not be contained by traditional firms, and that moved on to UNIX, to the Web, to open source. The one time, in the late 1980s, I went to Novell’s user group meeting, it was clearly a bit different. After one of the presentations, a LAN servicer rose to ask a question. “So-and-so, LANs Are My Life”, he identified himself. That was the name of his firm: LANs Are My Life, Inc. It’s not a bad epitaph for a computer company: we made a product so good that for some people – not just Novell employees – it was our life. Rest in peace, Novell.

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Wayne Kernochan