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Novell NDS as a standard?

Novell may release elements of the its Network Directory Services' software code to a standards board before the end of the year.

    Novell (NOVL) executives have disclosed that they may release elements of the company's Novell Directory Services' software code to the Internet Engineering Task Force before the end of the year.

    "We're definitely looking into it," said Michael Simpson, director of marketing for Novell's network services division. He said an August or end of the year standards body meeting were opportunities to raise the issue.

    "It's something we're interested in," he continued. "The industry as a whole needs to stop fighting about directories."

    A directory provides a central repository for all network resources--including systems and applications--for managers to use when configuring a system. Thus, an administrator only has one place to go when users need to be changed or access rights need to be augmented.

    Directory services are characterized as plumbing because--from a user's perspective--it is a tool that allows them to access applications more efficiently. But that simplicity belies a complex set of rules that are determined by the IT department.

    The IETF is a standards body made up of technologists that takes prospective standards and hashes out the particulars in focused working groups.

    The directory space has heated up recently due to a succession of bundling announcements from Novell. Just yesterday Novell announced IBM as yet another convert to its flagship software, Novell Directory Services. In May, internetworking giant Cisco Systems and software powerhouse Microsoft announced another eyebrow-raising partnership. The Redmond, Washington-based company also is working on an initial version of its own directory scheme called the Active Directory. That enhancement is expected to ship with Windows NT Server 5.0, due sometime next year.

    The move by Novell to offer up NDS as a potential standard may be a proactive move to combat the growing popularity of Windows NT. Once Active Directory ships within NT next year, adoption of Microsoft's directory technology is likely to mushroom.

    By offering a subset of the NDS code to the IETF, Novell could trump Microsoft's efforts to gain a foothold in the directory space by opening up the platform to third parties. Novell already plans to offer a version of NDS for Windows NT by the end of the summer, a date that has stretched beyond original company expectations.

    Novell officials said any code released into the public domain would not compromise the security and authentication features of the NDS platform, a key part of the software that allows users to sign on once at their desktop for access to applications.

    The move is in part intended to let developers make use of NDS's capabilities for free, making systems that bundle the full version of NDS more likely to be adopted on a widescale basis.

    Currently, the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) for directory communication is most useful at the desktop level, leaving room for server-based communications specifications in the directory space. "The weakness right now with LDAP is that it's a client access protocol," noted Jon Oltsik, analyst with the Forrester Research consultancy.

    "Anything Novell can do to accelerate that development for server to server communication is beneficial," he continued. "The question is does Novell have enough clout to get it done? The answer to that, I think, is no."

    Critics of Novell's moves claim the struggling networking software player is late with their strategy and should have opened up NDS to the industry through partnerships and platform support earlier in the game. They also question whether offering third parties the option of bundling NDS with their systems and equating that with an increased user base offers an accurate assessment of NDS's position within the industry.

    Under terms of the Novell/IBM pact, Big Blue will offer NDS code for free with its RS/6000 and mainframe S/390 systems. Other services, such as replication capabilities and file and print functionality, will be sold on top of the base platform. The RS/6000 bundling will roll out within 90 days, according to Novell officials, while the mainframe systems will offer NDS sometime next year.

    This follows agreements between Novell and Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, Santa Cruz Operation, and Fujitsu. The agreements call for the companies to bundle NDS with their various flavors of Unix. Novell officials now boast that over 75 percent of the Unix market will offer NDS.

    Novell's Simpson said the next step for the company was to try and work with third parties to pull NDS code into the operating system rather than layer it on the base software environment. That would offer security and password benefits for users on an NDS-enabled system from a third party such as IBM.

    According to Jim Hurley, director of operating environments for the Aberdeen Group, offering elements of NDS to the public could help the company make the platform the de facto standard directory for the industry.

    Aberdeen research has shown that Novell users are pleased with the way the company has attempted to disseminate NDS, Hurley said. But questions remain. "Novell is going to have to provide some striking reasons for the non-Novell universe to adopt their platform," Hurley said.