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Novell, Sun team against Microsoft

An evolving alignment between systems giant Sun and networking expert Novell has one goal in mind: staving off Microsoft's Windows NT.

An evolving alliance between systems giant Sun Microsystems (SUNW) and networking expert Novell (NOVL) has one goal in mind: staving off the growth of Microsoft (MSFT) Windows NT.

Both companies espouse a dedication to networking and suffer from an ingrained aversion to anything coming out of Redmond, Washington.

The final alignment of the Novell and Sun stars came with a new emphasis on Java as a platform for mission-critical networked business applications at the JavaOne conference.

Sun this week is celebrating the second year of a programming revolution. Its now-ubiquitous Java language could jeopardize the desktop operating system dominance of the Redmondians. Novell is slugging it out with Microsoft in the file and print server and application server markets.

"Sun is obviously trying to form partnerships to get Java out the door in its battle against Microsoft," noted Bob Sakakeeny, an analyst with The Aberdeen Group.

The partnership, which was formalized late last year, got a boost recently when Novell plucked one of Sun's brightest visionaries--technology guru and Java proponent Eric Schmidt--and made him chairman and CEO. The roots of cooperation between the companies run deep, based on the compelling need to merge technologies and create an interoperable network for users.

A study completed by the Aberdeen Group last summer presents a glaring reason for the two companies to join forces. Companies that run Sun systems for applications and databases also run Novell's NetWare and IntranetWare network operating system. "There's a real plus [in the relationship] due to a correlation between Sun installations and Novell installations," said Sakakeeny.

The first fruits of the partnership were publicized last fall when the $1.4 billion Novell pledged allegiance to Java and Sun's SunSoft subsidiary, wrapping the cross-platform programming language into its overarching strategy for future growth. Simultaneously, Sun pledged to offer the Provo, Utah-based firm's Novell Directory Services (NDS) on the Solaris platform. Novell also agreed to a port of the WebNFS file system to IntranetWare.

Those initial steps were buttressed by a continued emphasis on the part of Novell to incorporate the latest Java tools released by JavaSoft, another Sun subsidiary, into its platform.

Oracle and Netscape Communications have also cuddled up to the duo. Java is the tie that binds.

"So far the one thing that really appears to be behind [the four partners] is the support for the '100 percent pure Java' initiative," said Tom Kucharvy, president of Summit Strategies. The companies' collaboration on the pure Java initiative will do more than anything else to undermine Microsoft's attempt to establish its implementation of Java as an industry standard, he added.

Oracle has also created a division dedicated to offering products for Novell's platform. Netscape and Novell are funding a new company called Novonyx dedicated to integrating the two companies' products.

All of the companies are also proponents of the CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture) standard that defines communications between applications and components. CORBA is directly competitive with Microsoft's DCOM architecture for cross-platform application communications.

Novell and Sun are also cooperating on the file system front. At one time, how employees reached files was a religious issue in the networking software industry. Novell pioneered the concept of the local area network to offer users access to network-based files. Sun offered its users the Network File System (NFS), an implementation traditionally tied to Unix operating systems. Now Novell will support NFS and Sun will support Novell's next-generation distributed file and print services through NDS.

"Both of these companies have been focused on networking from day one," said Steve Holbrook, Novell's product line manager for Java. "There are no two other companies that can speak on the subject from more experience."

Some analysts argue that Novell has partnered out of necessity. The company has to take its primary technological advantage--NDS--to as many platforms as possible to drive future growth. They say Sun's motives to partner with Novell are purely tactical.

In other words, Sun has nothing to lose from the partnership and everything to gain, while Novell requires access to Sun's vast user base to proliferate its directory technology. Schmidt, freshly ensconced in Novell's CEO slot, may attempt to change that perception.

However the scale is balanced, the players--Sun, Novell, and to a large extent, Oracle and Netscape--are finding they have more similarities than differences. They offer strengths not apparent if they remained solo artists. How this battle plays out, in large measure, could determine the future relevance, profitability, and growth of the players involved in an industry known to leave losers on the sidelines.