Novell – A nice disaster

What can one say about brilliance and stupidity.  When I started at Microsoft the kings of File and Print servers was Novell.  There were a few others like Banyan Vines and Artisoft (they were peer-peer network service) and Microsoft had Lan Manager.  Microsoft in 1993 had released Windows NT 3.1 Advanced Server, to compete against Novell.  But Novell was the king. Novell was led by the aging Ray Noorda.  In time he was more of a liability then an asset.

Novell at the time had done a couple of things real well.  Unlike a lot of companies that had built consulting services around their network offerings, Novell built a huge partner channel.  they had Certified Novel Network Engineers, who carried around these red books (I could not resist comparing this to Maoist China).  When you look at the Microsoft partner channel today a lot of how we started was what we copied from Novell, 

A big event occurred in 1993 when Novell acquired the Unix Systems Labs from AT&T.  I think the reason was clear and tha was what Microsoft had done with NT.  I addition to NT being a file and print server it was an application server.  Servers are just like desktops, they are only as valuable as the applications tha run on them.  In desktops you have things like Office.  On servers you run things like ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) or CRM (Customer Relations Management) software, databases (Oracle, DB2, SQL Server etc..).  What Novell intended to do was unify the Unix vendors and share a common platform.  The reason was at that time every Unix flavor was slightly different – you had Solaris, AIX, HP UX and a bunch of others.  The intent was right as they realized the threat from Microsoft was very real.  However the idea and execution was sorely lacking.  Sun would figure this out later with Java (but that is a later Blog entry).  In any case Novell went to a major Unix conference with the idea of Unix  unification.  No one listened.

Novell had some other good ideas here.  They were working in Novell Directory Services (NDS), but they made the port from NetWare 3.1 that they provided an opening for NT and Microsoft’s active directory service.  They also were working on Novell Embedded Systems (NEST).  The idea was simple – if you are Coca Cola and service vending machines it would be nice how many cans you need to stock of if you can wait until the next week?  It was a bit ahead of its time.

Years later I had a chance to be in a room with Bill Gates and he talked about this.  Microsoft was very scared that Novell would take the Unix code and port it to Novell NetWare and make NetWare a app and file and print server.    Bill was quite animated as he held one palm  up and slapped the other down “all they had to do was port the Unix app code to NetWare and we were dead, I mean all they had to do …” repeatedly slapping his hand. 

Finally another stupid thing that Novell did was at the protocol level.  Remember this was before the internet.  The standard protocol the internet uses is TCP/IP.  Novell however used their own protocol IPX/SPX .  When Microsoft shipped NT, they support three protocols NetBui, IPX/SPX and TCP/IP.   It is such a trivial thing, I am not sure what advantage a protocol gives you but Novell proved to be stubborn on this one for no good reason.

In the end two decisions killed Novell.  Not making NetWare into an app server and not supporting TCP/IP.  the latter cost them a place when the internet revolution began.  They had a new  CEO, Eric Schmidt, who replaced Ray Noorda.  He tried to fix this but then was eventually lured away to a small company called Google.  He has done pretty well

When I look back at the nineties I think Microsoft always did a better job then the competition in keeping the bigger picture in mind.  Time and time again it seemed Microsoft’s competition could not seem to predict the direction technology was headed.  To me it seemed pretty simple and straight forward what was happening, but I guess to many it was not.

Well ee are moving pretty rapidly through a lot of interesting stuff.  Sometimes with some sex and sizzle and sometimes just a picture of the technology landscape.  Upcoming topics will be Windows 95 launch, Microsoft Global Sales SUmmit 1998 (the greatest), the DOJ, when I rip apart the Windows Mobile division and much, much more.  Let me know if you enjoy and thanks for following.

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