Xen leads Novell's turnaround effort in Linux

Virtualization tops list of Suse Linux improvements as Novell tries to gain ground against Red Hat.

Novell will try to recover from earlier Linux fumbles by releasing major updates on Monday, adding Xen virtualization software to its enterprise server product and glitzy graphics to the desktop counterpart.

The biggest change is arriving with Suse Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) 10, the first major version of Linux to incorporate the Xen hypervisor software. Xen is designed to boost a computer's efficiency by letting it run multiple operating systems simultaneously.

Less substantive, but still important in Novell's eyes, is fancy graphics interface software called Xgl now incorporated into Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) 10. Novell hopes Xgl will help showcase its innovations.

"SLED is going to be the sizzle, and SLES is going to be the steak," said Justin Steinman, Novell's director of product marketing for Linux.

But it will take more than just good technology to make inroads against Linux market leader Red Hat, said Ideas International analyst Tony Iams. "Products have never been a problem for Novell. It's been on marketing and execution," he said.

Novell acquired Germany-based Suse Linux in 2004, bringing in a new operating system to offer customers no longer excited by the company's vanquished NetWare. It argued that its strong customer relationships and U.S. sales force would propel Suse, but the product continues to lag Red Hat's significantly, and Novell's board replaced former Chief Executive Jack Messman with Ron Hovsepian in June.

Novell still has less than half of Red Hat's Linux sales. Red Hat's share of overall Linux operating system revenue decreased from 66 percent in 2004 to 61 percent in 2005, while Novell's increased from 21 percent to 29 percent over the same period, IDC analyst Al Gillen said.

But Novell still is in catch-up mode for the mainstream Linux market, machines that ship in high volume: "They haven't managed to get the mindshare in the volume space, which has been a problem," Gillen said.

SLES 10 should turn the Waltham, Mass.-based company's Linux results around, Novell's Steinman believes. "We are first to market with a next-generation platform. We are the only one to deliver a broad platform from the desktop to the data center. We will have much more aggressive marketing and be much easier to do business with," he said.

New technology in SLES 10 includes the open-source version of AppArmor, which monitors software behavior to detect security compromises. It's also got storage features to support high-availability software that makes one computer take over when another fails. But the spotlight is on Xen.

Xen arrives
Xen, an open-source project run by start-up XenSource with help from major hardware and software companies, is by all accounts one of the biggest changes arriving in the server realm--and it's not just a Linux phenomenon.

Today, Xen is best for running Linux on x86 servers using processors such as Intel's Xeon or Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron--but its influence is spreading. Sun Microsystems, IBM and Hewlett-Packard have early versions for their various Unix servers. And features in new x86 chips will let other operating systems run on a Xen foundation--Microsoft Windows, for example, or old versions of Linux that haven't been updated with support for newer hardware.

Initially, Novell will support only SLES 10 in Xen virtual machines. The operating system includes a YAST management module that enables people to launch, kill or reconfigure different virtual machines.

VMware, the virtualization software leader that generated $157 million for parent company EMC in the second quarter, already has many of Xen's advantages. But Xen will ship with every version of SLES starting Monday, and with Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, once that's released later this year.

IBM is supporting use of Xen on its System X line of x86 servers, said Dan Frye, the vice president of open systems development who oversees Big Blue's Linux Technology Center. The company has worked hard to improve Xen, which plays to IBM's strength in selling powerful servers juggling multiple tasks.

Xen will be remain in the prototype stage at customer sites for about the next year, and early adopters should start using it the year after that, Fry predicted. That means Novell's half-year lead over Red Hat likely won't give it a major benefit.

"I don't think it's a significant advantage," Frye said.

Xen will be updated significantly with the Service Pack 1 (SP1) for SLES, expected in late 2006 SP1. That version will officially support Windows, SLED 10 and SLES 9, Novell said.

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