Eric Schmidt's dream of a resurgent Novell with a new technological mindset has come a step closer to reality, as shipping dates near for its pan-system directory and range of enabled products.
Tension is building at the computer industry's cocktail party, where Microsoft has always been surrounded by avid, tippling listeners while Novell has sat in the corner alone sipping orange juice. Now, after two years rebuilding, Novell has drained its glass and started to tell its story: a tale of thin clients and operating system promiscuity. And even the most jaded guests are now listening.
Novell's notion - to place a vast directory beneath operating systems to coordinate and redirect data to everything above it - has caught the industry's attention.
Indeed, plans for NDS 8 - the first edition to accommodate operating systems in addition to its own NetWare - have been well known for some time. But CEO Schmidt's dreamland post-millennial data explosion could lead to a rethink for all current computer systems.
The company used its BrainShare conference in Salt Lake City in March to demonstrate the scalability of NDS 8 and announce versions for NT and Solaris. By the time of the second BrainShare event, in Nice last month, NDS for Linux had been added.
The widespread uptake of NDS coupled with buoyant sales of its flagship NetWare 5 network operating system helped Novell's revenues soar by 20%, Schmidt is confident Novell "is on its way to becoming a growth company again".
Along the way, Novell has announced a range of directory-enabled applications and picked up partnerships with just about every major player in the computer industry - including Cisco, long-term consort of Microsoft.
By tackling head on the eternal criticism of incompatibility, Novell has won the respect of its peers, who all know the game is up in a connected world.
So the question on everyone's lips is: what will Microsoft do when it feels Novell's pinch?
No one can be sure for some time: Novell expects to shift the first wave of its latest NDS and components in the third quarter of this year; Microsoft's well-publicised contender, Active Directory, is more marketing hype than tangible release.
On Novell's side is the Windows 2000 setback, Butler Group's director of research David Burman told PC Week: "The delay is a window of opportunity for Novell. It will be a challenge, though, to get companies to recognise the commercial benefits of a directory-based system."
Burman called the move toward directories inevitable, however. "Novell's advantage is that it is recognising cross-platform and will therefore enable everyone to play in the space," he said.
Novell's cross-platform cooperation even extends to Microsoft's Active Directory. Schmidt has said Novell will do everything in its power to work with the Seattle giant.
Such cooperation is self serving, of course. Chris Stone, Novell's senior vice president of strategy and corporate development, said: "Eric's phrase for dealing with Microsoft is, 'Don't moon the giant'. We won't take shots at it, but we will take the high ground."
Burman said he doubts that disaster will strike: "While I don't think the message is quite out there yet, Novell can do it under Schmidt.
"What we have missed out of the equation is fashion. Even the big companies that have signed with Novell seem unwilling to tell the world about it," he said.
IDC senior European analyst Rebecca Wettermann said: "The challenge for Novell will be to differentiate its directory from others in the market and to articulate clearly the important issues."
The influence of IT fashion can create a precarious situation if you're up against the marketing might of Microsoft. But, as everyone knows, what's hip one season is a fashion faux-pas the next. And, as the industry cocktail party mob drifts over to Novell's corner, it seems the company has the backing to meet Microsoft face to face.
ND VERSUS ACTIVE DIRECTORY
Question: Will Novell realise its dream to get all companies working with NDS?
"Not all companies, but it will very much enter the market. It is a good product, and more companies will begin to use it. Active Directory is not a choice at the moment, as it doesn't have all the functions of NDS."
Andreas Schroeder, network planner, Tegtmeyer EDV Beratung GMBH, Germany.
"Maybe. There will certainly be directories in almost every company.
There will be other companies that come into the market. NDS will be the most robust, however."
Tomas Ohrn, consultant, IMS Data, Sweden.
"Yes. But Microsoft is going very fast. The market will be fought between the two. Novell now has NDS for NT, so Microsoft is fighting it."
Andrzej Walczak, System Engineer, Inzymier Systemow Sieciowych, Poland.
"There is a fairly good chance of a good NDS product for NT, but I not sure about Unix. I'm concerned that Active Directory is not as stable as NDS. We will use NDS for NT and see how Active Directory performs."
Frank Hamerlinck, technical manager EMEA, Volvo IT, Belgium.
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