The appointment of Nelson fills a void in Novell's executive team, headed by chief executive Eric Schmidt. Nelson previously served as senior vice president of marketing and product development.
Nelson, 39, is a 15-year veteran of the computer industry. He joined Novell when the company bought WordPerfect in 1994.
News of the promotion comes in advance of a scheduled company news conference tomorrow to announce an updated set of software targeted at e-commerce and back-end networking services.
The heads of the company's product development, marketing, sales and services teams will now report to Nelson.