Getting its story straight

Nearly one year after his return to Novell, Chris Stone tries to make a business case for Novell's well-regarded, if poorly understood, technology.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
8 min read
For years, it seems that Novell's biggest challenge has been telling the world what it can do.

Nearly every IT director is familiar with Novell's NetWare operating system and its strong network directory. But despite a string of reorganizations and refocused marketing messages, Novell's fortunes remain tightly hewed to its base of NetWare customers, which has shrunk substantially at the expense of Windows.

Chris Stone is out to change that. Stone rejoined Novell nearly one year ago as vice chairman after a three-year hiatus. His mission: explain how Novell's trove of slick networking technology solves thorny business problems, like security and identity management.

Stone is redirecting the company's sales force toward selling solutions to complex problems rather than pushing boxes of NetWare. He's also brought to bear his experience from the Object Management Group in wooing corporate software developers. Within six months of Stone rejoining the company, Novell acquired Java application server company SilverStream Software.

With a broader product focus, the company now invites competition from a larger cast of characters, Stone admits. He also faces substantial internal upheaval from yet-another internal reorganization and the challenges of absorbing acquisitions. But Stone says he's determined to shake things up: "It's been a passive, entitlement-like joint for way too long, and that's just not the way we're going to run the cruise ship."

As he approaches his one-year anniversary of his return to Novell, Stone spoke to News.com about Novell's technology and its new game plan.

Q: Tell me what the new Novell is all about?
A: We refer to it as the next Novell. And let's be honest, the past couple of years people have been wondering, "What's up with you guys? Where you going? What are you doing?" We've been kind of dark. Obviously, we're changing all that. That starts with a new management team, a completely new focus, which some of the new acquisitions help bolster.

Are these mainly organizational changes?
It's a focus. It's amazing what focus does for companies that are our size. Our focus is to get away from 160-plus products or the "NetWare company," which is what most people will refer to us as, to much more of a solutions focus. You've seen us talk about secure identity management. If I asked you a year from now and you said, 'Novell's the secure identity management company,' I'm a happy guy. That's the kind of shift that we're looking for in the marketplace, the messaging twist that we're trying to recast the company with.

Identity management is probably the biggest problem in any large enterprise today.

How do you define secure identity management?
Secure identity management in essence is a directory, secure login, provisioning software, authorization and authentication--all the security and identity-related software that we've been building for years. And if you remember a few years ago, when I was running around talking about directories, everyone said, "That's great, Chris, but what the heck do you do with it?" Well we figured it out. Identity management is probably the biggest problem in any large enterprise today.

How does the SilverStream acquisition fit into this picture?
We bought SilverStream not because I wanted an app server. That's not the game. That's a commodity. The issue for us, we needed an application development process, which we never had. Because remember, in this business you're famous for two reasons: You got a platform and you got developers. Some companies have both, like Microsoft and IBM. Some companies have one. Well, we clearly had one with NetWare, but that's now 11 percent of the marketplace.

How do you solve that problem? You solve that problem by picking up a company like SilverStream that now gives us a platform across all operating environments. Because we're moving away from being just a NetWare company to providing solutions across different platforms, so whether it's Linux, or Windows or Unix variants or even NetWare. We're now looking at them all now as if they were the same.

Are you saying you want to be a developer company now?
No, I don't want to compete with .Net if that's what you're asking, or be a Visual Basic or Java company. But you have got to have an environment to attract them. So the issue is we have to attract developers, not be a developer company. If you're writing or integrating an application and you happen to use J2EE, we could never be an option in that. Now we are.

It's a whole new shift for us to broaden the audience because NetWare is 11 percent, but what about the other 89 percent? It's an opportunity we let go by, and we're not going to do that anymore. As long as our solutions are the best there is, then we'll attract that audience. This year's BrainShare (conference) is going to be targeted at corporate developers. It's going to be targeted at a CIO level audience. It's not going to be targeted at LAN administrators.

In the past the directory was always Novell's crown jewel. But for Novell to benefit, software companies would have to build applications with the directory. Has that not really panned out?
The problem there was that most people couldn't figure out what to do with it. And No. 2, there were proprietary interfaces. That's now changed. E-directory is pretty much, from an interface perspective, all standardized. It's all LDAP; it's all XML. We're driving toward UDDI. And all of the directory markup languages, all the standards out there are going to be supported in the directory. So it basically means you can integrate it--you don't necessarily write a new application to take advantage of the directory. What you do is integrate the directory so you have one common identity platform. One place to do policy management, one place to set roles, Martin has access to these five apps, but not this one. Or when we fire him, turn his phone off.

What about Web services?
I did Web services with CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture). I just didn't know that's what it was. The problem with Web services is that Microsoft has gifted us with this term, and they've obviously changed the meaning of it. .Net server is nothing more than yet another Windows server. What is it now? Windows Server 2003. Come on, we all knew that. Now they're finally coming clean. But the point is it's just another version of Windows.

So Web services to me or Novell is nothing more than what I just said: You've got to have a front door to log in, you've got to authenticate, you've got to provide identity services for people, places, devices and things. You've got to provide an application development platform to integrate existing stuff. You've got to be able to repurpose all the applications in an environment so it looks like it's coming from one place. I have to log on once, not twelve times. That's a Web service. It's stuff that's out there, whether it's newly built using Java or .Net, or newly built using some other model or C even, for crying out loud. It's just exposed with a common interface. And the data model is XML. That's Web services, to me.

But it's also true that you're trying to establish a footing others have been in for a while.
I'll be frank with you. If you were to take the messaging that we're trying to do, and we had the market prowess of someone like Microsoft or BEA, we'd be killing (the competition). The problem is that we're coming from such a dark model, it's an uphill battle for us. We all know that, but we're not giving up. Were fundamentally changing this company to be in that space, to be a driving force in identity, to be the leader. To be one of the top five, not number one, in the "Web services" or what I would refer to actually as more secure Web solutions--that's really what it is, secure Web solutions.

Given that shift and that ambition, you're facing some deep pockets and well run companies.
We have to be better at the solutions. We have to be much better with our implementation of how we solve the problem. So we're manic. Remember Novell is a company full of engineering talent and wonderful technical stuff. The problem is we're full engineering talent and wonderful technical stuff and have not been able to parlay that into a good positioning and marketing message, which is what a lot of people buy. Unfortunately, but that's what they do. That's going to change. It starts with a whole (advertising) campaign to change our perspective.

.Net server is nothing more than yet another Windows server.
So the audience shift is from LAN administrator to the corporate developer?
From that level, but moving up the stack. People always bashed this company for this marketing or lack thereof. I would argue that our marketing has been really good; the problem is that it's been (preaching) to the choir, only to people that love us.

What about the size of deals you're trying to do?
We're going for the bigger ones. Enterprise deals is what's driving us. It's what we're going after.

And they're big deals because they touch so many pieces?
Right, because of the business process change. It's a huge, huge issue. Many CIOs have come to the realization: 'I'm not going to buy Notes to solve this problem because it doesn't solve it. It exacerbates it. I can't possibly buy document management to solve an identify problem with SAP, PeopleSoft, DB2 and some other stuff. It just proliferates it. People are sitting back and saying, 'Wait a second, let's not buy any more packaged or big monolithic stuff. Let's figure out how to make it look like it's all working from one company. And give our users and supplier access to that data.'

So the your shift also means more of a business, rather technology-led, sell.
Right. It's a very dramatic shift for the company; it's a pendulum swing. And we've been working from the inside out to do that. A lot of companies work from the outside in: They announce a strategy and they say, 'We better tell the employees about that.' And we decided, no, let's take a year and fix everything internally. Reshape, recast from engineering up, and that's what we've been doing.

You left Novell four years ago and returned about a year ago. What's different in this trip to Novell?
In this one I actually get to do stuff, whereas in the last one I just bitched about it.

Why is this refocused Novell different from past big strategic changes?
It wasn't the company. It was parts of it.

There was always a group that wished that you didn't really pull it off?
Right. The bus is now full. There aren't just a couple people in the back seat.