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Novell lays off AppArmor programmers

Novell reduces AppArmor work, relying instead on the open-source community, but project leaders launch a new company for the open-source Linux security project.

Two years after acquiring the company that developed the AppArmor security software for Linux, Novell has laid off team members behind the project, CNET News.com has learned.

AppArmor's founder and leader, Crispin Cowan, joined Novell in 2005 when it acquired his company, Immunix, which developed the software. But he and four others from the project lost their Novell jobs in Portland, Ore., on September 28, Cowan confirmed.

However, he plans to continue AppArmor development. He and two other laid-off AppArmor programmers, Steve Beattie and Dominic Reynolds, launched an AppArmor consulting company on Wednesday called Mercenary Linux.

"I have lots of reputation capital. I can get another job. But I care about AppArmor as a project and I want it succeed," Cowan said in an interview Thursday. However, the change was a surprise: "I'm stunned. I was getting bonuses and raises and awards up until the time I was laid off."

AppArmor, which Novell said will still be hosted on its Web site, is software that grants software only the privileges and access it needs, an approach that reduces the powers a remote attacker can get from a compromised computer. Although leading Linux seller Red Hat is backing an earlier rival technology called SELinux, Canonical is building AppArmor into its next version of Ubuntu, Gutsy Gibbon, and Mandriva has included AppArmor in its new Mandriva Linux 2008.

Novell spokesman Bruce Lowry wouldn't comment on specifics of the layoff, but said job cuts are "part of our ongoing restructuring efforts we've been talking throughout the year." Part of that effort involves "improving our product development process."

Novell will continue updating AppArmor and using and it in its Suse Linux Enterprise Server software, but the development mechanism has changed since Novell released AppArmor as open-source software in 2006. Some companies outsource programming work to India, but with active open-source software projects, there's even lower-cost options.

"An open-source AppArmor community has developed. We'll continue to partner with this community," though the company will continue to develop aspects of AppArmor, Lowry said.

Cowan was concerned that resources need to be focused directly on the project.

"Novell wants the community to pick up maintenance and development of AppArmor. But tossing it in the wind and hoping is not good enough assurance for me, so now it's my business to go find sponsors who are willing to pay for AppArmor development," Cowan said.

Mercenary Linux will write security profiles for software, though that's not a difficult task, as well as translate the software to new hardware, help to embed it in particular devices, and, potentially, revamp it for use on different operating systems, Cowan said.

But chiefly he expects Mercenary Linux to get by on smaller projects. "It's much easier to sell a small chunk of AppArmor development to somebody who needs something specific than it is to sell the whole concept," he said. "If somebody loves us and one day wants to acquire Mercenary, that's great."