Open source @ Novell: Justin Steinman speaks

Novell takes a lot of heat for its patent deal with Microsoft and rightfully so. But there is much that the company is doing to advance the cause and state of open source in the industry.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
10 min read

In this second installment of the "Open Source @" series, we're taking a look at the role of open source within one of the industry's largest open-source companies, Novell. Of course Novell is doing things with open source," some will say. However, I chose to include Novell because I wanted to give the company a chance to tell its side of the story, given all the flak (much of it from me) it has taken on its patent deal with Microsoft.

I've given Novell a forum to discuss the patent deal before but, frankly, I wanted to give the company a chance to talk about all the other open-source-related things it's doing. Even I get tired of hitting the same note all day long, every day, for the past year.

And so I asked Justin Steinman, director of product marketing, Linux & Open Platform Solutions at Novell, to comment on the state of open source at the company. What is Novell doing for which it gets little credit?

Justin responded (and sent his response in Open Document format, which I think says a lot about Novell's desktop efforts) with a long (very long!), thoughtful post. It's well worth a read.

He writes:

I'm pleased to report that open source is alive and well at Novell, and it's very much ingrained into almost everything we do across the company. Obviously, SUSE Linux Enterprise gets the lion's share of attention when you think open source and Novell, but the truth is we've got a lot of other things cooking on the open-source front.

We believe that open source and open standards are the value-creation engine for next generation of software--both for people who build software and for people who use software.

There are four ways to look at the state of open source at Novell.

  1. Contributions to open-source projects
  2. Bringing open-source products to the market
  3. Participation in standards work
  4. Patent busting and redefining IP

Contributions to open-source projects

It all starts with OpenSUSE.org, the open-source project we sponsor that becomes the foundation for our SUSE Linux Enterprise distribution. OpenSUSE.org is a vibrant community with more than 40,000 active community members and more than 714,000 confirmed installations. The OpenSUSE project is a worldwide community program sponsored by Novell that provides a central hub for a community of users and developers, who all have the same goal in mind: to create and distribute the world's most usable Linux.

However, OpenSUSE.org is just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the other projects to which we contribute include:

  • The Bandit project: Novell launched Bandit-project.org in early 2006 to drive cooperative work around an identity management framework. Identity is a core competency of Novell dating back to the launch of Novell Directory Services--now eDirectory--back in 1993. Bandit is implementing emerging standards for Internet identity services and adding a layer that provides consistent authentication, authorization and auditing. Bandit technology implements open-standard protocols and specifications so that identity services can be constructed, accessed and integrated from multiple identity sources.
  • The Higgins project: Higgins was launched in early 2006 by IBM, Novell and Parity Communications. Also identity focused, Higgins focuses on software for "usercentric" identity management. The goal is to let users actively manage and control their online personal information, whether it's phone and credit card numbers, a bank account, or medical and employment records. Today, it's largely institutions that control that information.
  • Mono: Mono is addressing a very complex challenge, yet has a simple sounding goal: making applications built on the Microsoft .NET framework run on Linux and other platforms. There are early adopter software development companies using Mono. For example, SanDisk recently used Mono to power one of its award-winning portable music player, and OTEE Implemented a powerful 3D Game Development System. Most recently, Miguel de Icaza demonstrated Microsoft's latest technology--Silverlight (rich application for Web sites and Web applications)--running on Linux via Mono, at Microsoft's MIX conference last week in Paris. Also, many open-source projects today are based on Mono: Helix, Banshee, F-Spot, Beagle are a few examples.
  • Linux kernel: Greg Kroah-Hartman of Novell's SUSE Labs is the current Linux kernel maintainer for the PCI, USB, I²C, driver core and the sysfs kernel subsystems, along with contributing to the kobject, kref and debugfs code. He is also the maintainer of the linux-hotplug and udev projects. Additionally, he maintains the Gentoo Linux packages for these programs and helps with the kernel package. He works for SUSE Labs.
  • Desktop and documents: As a sponsor of the GNOME project and a patron of KDE, we continue to contribute to those projects. Our "BetterDesktop.org" initiative provided to the community some 1,500 hours of videotaped user interaction with desktops, an important tool for improving the Linux desktop interface. We're involved in promoting open-document formats at multiple levels. We're the No. 2 contributor to OpenOffice.org after Sun, and we've done important work, for example, around VBA Macros, to make it even easier for organizations to adopt OpenOffice.org. We've developed initial connectors between OpenOffice.org and OpenXML. We're founding members of the ODF Alliance, a group designed to promote the adoption of ODF by governments worldwide. So, there's lots of good stuff happening there.
  • OpenWSMAN: Novell is a key contributor to the OpenWSMAN project, a project intended to provide an open-source implementation of WS-Management. The project's goal is to provide a complete WS-Management stack, exposing system-management information on the Linux operating system using the WS-MAN protocol. WS-MAN addresses the cost and complexity of IT management by providing a common way for systems to access and exchange management information across the entire IT infrastructure. Incidentally, this collaboration intersects with our Microsoft agreement, where both Novell and Microsoft agreed to implement the WS-Man protocol on SUSE Linux Enterprise and Windows Server 2008, respectively.
  • Open Management with CIM (OMC): OMC is an open-source umbrella project sponsored by Novell to promote standardization of data center management processes and integrated systems management for heterogeneous networks. It includes implementations of the open-standards management profiles and specifications defined by the Distributed Management Task Force. OMC is designed as a system of components and providers based on the CIM standards.
  • AppArmor: Novell leads the AppArmor project, which is designed to provide an easy-to-use security framework for applications running on Linux. AppArmor proactively protects the operating system and applications from external or internal threats, even zero-day attacks, by enforcing good behavior and preventing even unknown application flaws from being exploited.
  • Linux-HA project: The Linux-HA project provides a high-availability (clustering) solution for Linux, which promotes reliability, availability and serviceability through a community development effort. The most well-known component of the Linux-HA project is Heartbeat.
  • Aperi Storage Management project: A recently launched open-source project delivering an open, extensible, standards-based storage management framework. Aperi gives customers more flexibility and choice on how to manage their storage. Simplifying the infrastructure customers need to manage storage.

We contribute to a number of other projects, as well (i.e., TK2, Evolution, NetworkManager and Samba), but this gives you a good sense of the extent to which we're deploying, developing and promoting open source at Novell. We're users, we're contributors, and we're commercial sellers of open-source solutions. Our business model is heavily dependent on open source. We are committed at the DNA level to making Linux and open source the platform and model for the future.

Bringing open-source products to the market

Obviously, to succeed as a business and be able to fund open-source activities, Novell needs to effectively bring open-source products to market. Novell is pursuing a two-pronged business strategy. Our Open Platforms Solutions business unit delivers commercial open-source solutions built on top of our SUSE Linux Enterprise platform. Our other three business units--Workgroup, Identity, and Systems Management--are dedicated to building enterprise management services. These solutions can be hosted on and manage a variety of operating systems, including Linux, Windows, Unix and NetWare. (Of course, given our preference, we'd obviously recommend that customers run them on a SUSE Linux Enterprise Server host.) Sometimes these enterprise management solutions are open source and sometimes they are proprietary. That's what makes Novell a "mixed source" company (yes, Matt, I know you dislike that term)--we deliver the software that customers want, regardless of the development model.

For our open-source products, Novell is committed to working with the open-source community to deliver the products customers want. That's what makes product management at a company like Novell so interesting. We talk with customers and find out what they want. Then we collaborate with the community to develop open-source solutions to the business challenges faced by our customers. Novell packages that innovation in an easily consumable format, tests it, does ISV and IHV certification, and then distributes the open-source solutions to our customers. We make our money not by selling the software (we can't sell it, under the terms of the GPL), but by offering services like consulting, training and technical support.

Participation in standards work

Novell is currently active in more than 27 open-standards setting organizations, many of which are closely tied to open-source activities. Members of these organizations typically include companies, industry groups, government agencies and individuals. Novell is particularly active in forums that promote standards around open source.

Open standards are a collection of efforts toward a common goal of advancing interoperability. An example of this is with the Linux Standards Base (LSB). LSB delivers interoperability between applications and the Linux operating system. SUSE continues to be one of the first distributions to certify to new revisions of the Linux Standards Base, under the auspices of the Free Standards Group. We're an active member in the Linux Foundation, formed from the merger of the Free Standards Group and the Open Source Development Labs earlier this year.

A couple of additional examples:

  • We're working with the Distributed Management Task Force on open WBEM/CIM industry standards for systems management. Novell is a board member and the openWBEM/CIM standards are implemented and promoted with SUSE Linux Enterprise. WBEM aims at unifying the management of enterprise computing environments across multiple vendor applications. CIM is an industry standard providing a consistent and common definition and structure of management information data for applications, systems and services, ensuring interoperability across enterprises.
  • On the document front, we are also contributing members of the OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications and ODF Adoption Technical committees.

Patent busting and redefining IP

Finally, Novell is active in the IP arena around open source. Most recently, we announced an agreement with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to work together worldwide to promote reform to eliminate bad patent policy. We'll be lobbying the WIPO, U.S. government and others as part of this initiative. We also are contributing funding to the EFF Patent Busting program, which aims to identify and overturn the most egregious bad patents out in the market. Novell believes patents can be used to stifle innovation. However, we feel it is unrealistic to simply eliminate patents overnight. So we want to work to improve the system to reduce the negative impact of patents.

While we've taken a lot of flak in the community over the patent component of our Microsoft agreement (we won't reiterate our arguments here about why we don't believe that deal acknowledged Microsoft IP in Linux), we've been in the forefront in defending Linux against IP challenges. We fought--and continue to fight--the SCO Group in court over claims of Unix IP in Linux. That has cost us a lot of time and money, and the community has benefited from the cloud this has lifted off Linux. We provided indemnification to customers against copyright claims against Linux. We issued a patent policy that made it clear we were prepared to use our patents to defend Linux, if Linux were attacked. And we are a co-founder of the Open Invention Network and committed important patent assets to OIN, including the CommerceOne patents we bought for some $15 million in 2004.


So, if you've made it this far, then I want to thank you for reading all the way to the end. I know I had a lot to say. But we've got a lot going on at Novell, and we're very excited about it. To be honest, the first draft of this blog was 10 pages. When Matt asked me to write this blog, and I went to talk with the folks around Novell, there was just an outpouring of: "Don't forget to write about XYZ," and "You absolutely need to cover this thing, too." People here love what they are doing, and there's a general feeling of optimism inside Novell that our open-source strategy is a key component of what's going to drive this company's future success. We're strong believers in open source as the model of innovation for the future, and we're committed to being constructive participants in the community.

If you want to talk more, please drop me a line at jsteinman@novell.com.

Thanks for taking the time, Justin. And I thought I was the verbose one.

In all seriousness, it's easy to point fingers and I'm routinely guilty of that. Novell employs thousands of people who want to do the right thing. We can disagree on whether they--or, rather, a subsection of "they"--always succeed. But there clearly is a range of great open-source work happening at Novell. Thank you for bringing this to my readers' attention.

I think we'll shake things up a bit with our next installment and talk with SAIC, a leading provider of scientific, engineering, systems integration and technical services and solutions. It will be interesting to hear how open source plays into the work done by a major, global SI.