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Novell management tool going open source

The company plans to release its YAST product under a widely used open-source license in a plan to spread the program's use, CNET has learned.

Reversing a long-standing position, Novell plans to adopt a widely used open-source license for its Linux management tool in a plan to spread the program and make its SuSE Linux product more popular, CNET has learned.


What's new:
Newly anointed Linux powerhouse Novell will adopt a widely used open-source license for its Linux management tool in an effort to make its SuSE Linux product more popular.

Bottom line:
Novell lets the rest of the industry use a respected management tool--and tries to outflank leading Linux seller Red Hat--while sending a strong message of cooperation to the open-source community.

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For years, SuSE has considered its YAST (Yet Another Setup Tool) technology--software for installing, configuring and managing Linux--an advantage over its competitors and forbade them from incorporating it into the products they sold. But with the new plan, to be announced Monday at Novell's Brainshare conference, the company will release YAST under the General Public License (GPL), sources familiar with the plan said.

By putting YAST under the same open-source license that governs Linux itself, Novell hopes the program will gain widespread acceptance as a module used by management software powerhouses such as Computer Associates International, Hewlett-Packard and IBM, sources said.

Building partnerships with major software companies will make Novell's SuSE Linux a more compelling product, according to the company. There's another perk: One of the first management programs to tap into YAST will be Novell's own ZenWorks, one source said.

Novell became a Linux power in January, when it acquired SuSE Linux for $210 million. But so far, the Waltham, Mass.-based company has given little indication of how it plans to balance its proprietary and open-source software portfolios.

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Making software open source can serve many goals. It can curry favor with the open-source community; it can attract outside programmers who will expand the software in new directions; it can undermine a competitor that's charging for the same product; and it can make the software spread quickly. In Novell's case, the intent was to spread YAST widely, attract the management software makers, and unite the software industry behind a new direction, sources said.

Management software, once a dowdy part of the computing industry, is becoming more important as technology companies develop the utility computing idea as a way to lower the expense of managing computers. Management typically is far more expensive than the initial purchase. Novell's YAST move adds competitive pressure against rival Red Hat, which is using its Red Hat Network as a centerpiece to its utility computing technology.

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The new license is expected to arrive with SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9, due to ship in late spring or early summer, though it's possible that downloadable versions of YAST will incorporate the change sooner.

Novell declined to comment on the plan.

But one company, Computer Associates, endorsed it warmly, calling the YAST plan "an important step forward for the Linux market."

"By providing a common, open standardized platform for instrumenting the management of Linux systems, YAST provides a useful interface for customers seeking to build enterprise management environments," said a statement from Sam Greenblatt, senior vice president of CA's Linux Technology Group.

Many eyes are watching Novell to see how Linux will change the company, which had become steadily less relevant after Microsoft beat out its NetWare product for server operating systems in the 1990s.

"While Novell had some existing assets that were interesting, they lacked a coherent strategy for gluing them together. Linux may well be that glue," RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady said. "By embracing Linux up and down the stack, from the server to the desktop, Novell's put a definite charge into the company and given it a solid direction forward."

The YAST move will dovetail with Novell's work to comply with server management standards in development at a Distributed Management Task Force working group, a source said. It also will link with Novell's two update tools, Red Carpet and YAST Online Update, the source said.

Joining the open-source mainstream
The GPL governs Linux and many other open-source software packages and is a foundation of the cooperative programming movement's philosophy. The GPL permits anyone to see, modify and redistribute a program's underlying source code, as long as any changes are made public upon redistribution.

In contrast, YAST's current license carries prohibitions on distribution: "Distribution of the YAST program, its sources...and the works derived thereof for a charge require the prior written consent of SuSE Linux," according to the license.

Bruce Perens, who helped write the Open Source Definition and is an open-source advocate, described the permission provision as "pernicious" in an interview.

YAST lets a Linux user install the operating system and perform management tasks such as installing new software, adding hardware, and configuring options such as network and security settings. YAST is "a very effective system management or deployment tool," D.H. Brown analyst Tony Iams said.

Uncertainties remain
"YAST would seem to have the makings of a successful project: good backing, solid foundation to build from and market need," O'Grady said, but how far YAST will spread beyond Novell is unclear.

One major uncertainty is how it will be able to manage Red Hat's Linux systems, which are considerably more abundant than SuSE servers, according to analysts.

YAST can manage Red Hat Linux computers only in a rudimentary fashion, and one source familiar with the YAST plan doesn't expect to offer Red Hat any help.

And Red Hat is happy with its own management software. "We've been shipping and fine-tuning our tools for configuration and management for some years now," company spokeswoman Leigh Day said.

Novell should actively work with its competitors if it truly wants to spread YAST far and wide, Perens said. "If they really want to push this within their company, they should be working with their own engineers to get it working with both Fedora (a test version of Red Hat's Linux) and Debian," a noncommercial version of Linux, Perens said.

And in any case, it can be tough getting an open-source project to catch on. IBM succeeded with its Eclipse programming tools, but Caldera--the company now called the SCO Group that's attacking Linux in court--failed with a management tool called Caldera Open Administration System, Perens said.

Making a program into open-source software can trigger a "snowball effect" in which more and more developers contribute their enhancements, D.H. Brown's Iams said. Waiting years to make the move can hurt, though.

"The earlier you release into open source, the more effective the open-source formula tends to be," Iams said. "The textbook example there is Netscape. It did eventually take hold as the (open-source) Mozilla project, but it's not as elegant as something like Linux," which began as open-source software.