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Xen leads Novell's turnaround effort in Linux

Virtualization tops list of Suse Linux improvements as Novell tries to gain ground against Red Hat.

Novell will try to recover from earlier Linux fumbles by releasing major updates on Monday, adding Xen virtualization software to its enterprise server product and glitzy graphics to the desktop counterpart.

The biggest change is arriving with Suse Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) 10, the first major version of Linux to incorporate the Xen hypervisor software. Xen is designed to boost a computer's efficiency by letting it run multiple operating systems simultaneously.

Less substantive, but still important in Novell's eyes, is fancy graphics interface software called Xgl now incorporated into Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) 10. Novell hopes Xgl will help showcase its innovations.

"SLED is going to be the sizzle, and SLES is going to be the steak," said Justin Steinman, Novell's director of product marketing for Linux.

But it will take more than just good technology to make inroads against Linux market leader Red Hat, said Ideas International analyst Tony Iams. "Products have never been a problem for Novell. It's been on marketing and execution," he said.

Novell acquired Germany-based Suse Linux in 2004, bringing in a new operating system to offer customers no longer excited by the company's vanquished NetWare. It argued that its strong customer relationships and U.S. sales force would propel Suse, but the product continues to lag Red Hat's significantly, and Novell's board replaced former Chief Executive Jack Messman with Ron Hovsepian in June.

Novell still has less than half of Red Hat's Linux sales. Red Hat's share of overall Linux operating system revenue decreased from 66 percent in 2004 to 61 percent in 2005, while Novell's increased from 21 percent to 29 percent over the same period, IDC analyst Al Gillen said.

But Novell still is in catch-up mode for the mainstream Linux market, machines that ship in high volume: "They haven't managed to get the mindshare in the volume space, which has been a problem," Gillen said.

SLES 10 should turn the Waltham, Mass.-based company's Linux results around, Novell's Steinman believes. "We are first to market with a next-generation platform. We are the only one to deliver a broad platform from the desktop to the data center. We will have much more aggressive marketing and be much easier to do business with," he said.

New technology in SLES 10 includes the open-source version of AppArmor, which monitors software behavior to detect security compromises. It's also got storage features to support high-availability software that makes one computer take over when another fails. But the spotlight is on Xen.

Xen arrives
Xen, an open-source project run by start-up XenSource with help from major hardware and software companies, is by all accounts one of the biggest changes arriving in the server realm--and it's not just a Linux phenomenon.

Today, Xen is best for running Linux on x86 servers using processors such as Intel's Xeon or Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron--but its influence is spreading. Sun Microsystems, IBM and Hewlett-Packard have early versions for their various Unix servers. And features in new x86 chips will let other operating systems run on a Xen foundation--Microsoft Windows, for example, or old versions of Linux that haven't been updated with support for newer hardware.

Initially, Novell will support only SLES 10 in Xen virtual machines. The operating system includes a YAST management module that enables people to launch, kill or reconfigure different virtual machines.

VMware, the virtualization software leader that generated $157 million for parent company EMC in the second quarter, already has many of Xen's advantages. But Xen will ship with every version of SLES starting Monday, and with Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, once that's released later this year.

IBM is supporting use of Xen on its System X line of x86 servers, said Dan Frye, the vice president of open systems development who oversees Big Blue's Linux Technology Center. The company has worked hard to improve Xen, which plays to IBM's strength in selling powerful servers juggling multiple tasks.

Xen will be remain in the prototype stage at customer sites for about the next year, and early adopters should start using it the year after that, Fry predicted. That means Novell's half-year lead over Red Hat likely won't give it a major benefit.

"I don't think it's a significant advantage," Frye said.

Xen will be updated significantly with the Service Pack 1 (SP1) for SLES, expected in late 2006 SP1. That version will officially support Windows, SLED 10 and SLES 9, Novell said.

With the new products, Novell is aiming to clean up its pricing, Steinman said. Breaking with its past practices, the company now charges the same for computers using x86, Power or Itanium processors, regardless of whether the system in question is a low-end single-processor machine or a behemoth with 64 dual-core processors.

For basic support levels, the cost is $349 per year. With standard support, which guarantees a call-back within four hours during the business day, the price increases to $799 a year. Priority support, with a one-hour response time around the clock, the price is $1,499.

"We're trying to make Novell easy to do business with," Steinman said.

One SLES support subscription is good for as many virtual machines as a customer wants on a single computer system. That's the same virtualization pricing policy Red Hat says it employs.

The only pricing exception is for IBM mainframe machines, where annual support prices are drastically higher: $11,999 for basic, $15,000 for standard and $18,000 for priority.

Desktop efforts
Novell has tried to challenge Microsoft's stronghold, personal computers, but hasn't made many inroads. Its aggressive rhetoric has now been replaced with a more pragmatic tone, but Novell still wants to sell its SLED 10 desktop software to business, education and government customers.

"SLED 10 is deployable for general office worker," sending e-mail, browsing the Web and writing memos, Steinman said. "We are not targeting SLED at the consumer."

For desktop customers, SLED 10 costs $50 per year--a price that includes the suite as well as the operating system.

Novell has followed Red Hat in preferring GNOME for its user interface (UI) software, though the KDE alternative also is available.

Steinman has no illusions that the Xgl feature--now officially called "desktop effects"--will boost worker productivity. But he believes it's better than the AIGLX technology Red Hat advocates for visual "bling," and he hopes it will draw attention to Novell.

"People see the eye candy, and they think, 'If they can deliver this on the desktop, I'm sure they can deliver it on the server as well.' It's a visual demonstration of the innovation at Novell," Steinman said. And Xgl doesn't tax computer performance, he asserted.

Among the desktop effects are "wobbly windows" that jiggle as they are dragged and bumped into other windows; an easy zoom feature to help magnify the screen for disabled users; a three-dimensional workspace that maps different parts of a user's desktop to the facets of a cube that can be spun around; window transparency; and application switching that shows miniature versions of each program for quicker identification.

Despite their affinity for the command line, many Linux enthusiasts are also eager for a fancy user interface. But generally, such effects are something of a mismatch for the corporate market Novell is trying to reach with SLES 10, said Ovum Summit analyst Dwight Davis.

"The people most affected and impressed by glitzy UIs tend to be the consumer market, not the business market, and the consumers tend to be the ones least likely to go out and buy a Linux desktop," Davis said.

Novell also has been working to augment the OpenOffice open-source productivity software with some missing features, such as the ability to run Visual Basic macro programs and to support Microsoft Excel pivot tables (a sophisticated data sifting and presentation feature). These features are still only available in the Novell edition of OpenOffice, the company said.

Again, Davis was skeptical. "The inertia of the market, which has been comfortable with Microsoft's Office suite, if not necessarily with the pricing for it, is pretty significant," he said.

Steinman remains optimistic about the new SLED and SLES 10 products, though: "We simplified pricing, we've cleared up our product line, tightened marketing, and the sales force is raring to go on this."