Interview: Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian focuses on open partnerships and back to basics technology

Ron Hovsepian, chief executive officer of Novell, says the company has learnt from past mistakes.

It is fair to say that Novell has made a couple of bad decisions in its past, such as going directly after Microsoft in the mid-1990s, with an entire PC product suite. But Ron Hovsepian, who has been its chief executive officer for the past four years, is adamant the company has learnt from past mistakes.

"Our previous mistakes have shown that we did not place enough emphasis on our go-to-market strategy," he says.

These mistakes have been expensive for the company that invented PC networking with NetWare's world domination as the PC network operating system of choice. In the 1980s, Novell allowed users to link PCs cheaply and easily together to create networks. These NetWare-powered networks enabled staff to use fileservers to share documents and print from a central print server. At the time, this was nothing short of revolutionary, as the PC was considered almost a toy which did not connect easily into the all-important corporate network, unless users bought expensive, proprietary networks from the likes of IBM.

But NetWare led to a loss in focus. It began with Microsoft's launch of Windows NT - and Novell's response. It changed NetWare from a network operating system into an application platform. This strategy failed, as did Novell's 2001 acquisition of Cambridge Technology, when it tried and failed to move into IT services.

Renewed focus on IT services

"Today we must address distribution and technology," says Hovsepian. Novell has always been regarded as a strong tech player. Just as NetWare was revolutionary in its time, Novell's SuSE Linux distribution is pushing the limits of Linux, such as the version that runs on the IBM zSeries mainframe.

Hovsepian says, "We moved out of professional services a few years after we bought Cambridge Technology because it drove away our business partners. I want to push the services revenue back to the partners."

As such, since the start of 2010, 3,300 people have been trained on Novell's products.

But if SuSE, a free operating system, is Novell's flagship product, and Novell partners are selling IT services, how will the company make any money?

"With open source software you get paid for support and we will continue to offer technical support," Hovsepian says. "But implementation services have shifted to our business partners, and now only account for 4% to 5% of our revenue."

Back to basics

Novell is going back to basics. "We have to be consistent and build the brand, but due to our past our customers and business partners are confused."

So what does Novell mean today? Hovsepian's answer is somewhat short and to the point: "We are an infrastructure company focusing on heterogenous systems."

As an example, the company's Linux software products include Mono, an open source implementation of Microsoft's .net platform for SuSE. With Mono, IT departments are no longer restricted to running Windows servers for .net apps and Linux for Java apps. He says Mono allows CIOs to run a Windows software stack on top of Linux.

Similarly, the company's controversial joint development project with Microsoft three-and-a-half years ago means Microsoft Windows can run as a guest operating system on top of Novell's Xen virtualisation environment, which ships with SuSE Linux Enterprise Server. Similarly, SuSE can run as a guest on top of Microsoft's Hyper-V virtualisation platform.

Plans for the future

The company's identity management product, Identity Manager 4, is key to Novell's future strategy. Hovsepian says, "The emergence of virtual and cloud-driven business models has created new challenges around identity and access control. CIOs need a consistent, extensible platform for managing identities inside and outside the walls of their enterprise."

Identity Manager 4 is at the heart of Novell's latest platform push, dubbed Intelligent Workload Management (IWM), in which applications are categorised with security credentials to automate deployment. IWM allows IT departments to specify whether an application can only run on physical hardware, whether it is okay to run on virtual machines, or whether it is safe to deploy in the public cloud.

People often ask that if Novell is an infrastructure company, where does its GroupWise collaboration and e-mail product fit in? Hovsepian says Novell acquired 500 customers for GroupWise during the past year. It is now positioned as a collaboration platform, but the firm is planning to build a new business around collaboration based on a product in development called Pulse.

With Google "the number one rival for telcos", he says it does not really make much sense to offer Gmail as a primary service, with its own proprietary messaging services. Instead, Novell plans to sell Pulse as an open collaboration platform, which integrates Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging, among others, along with e-mail, in a single product.

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