Novell CEO outlines Linux adoption challenges

Novell chairman and chief executive officer Jack Messman told visitors to LinuxWorld yesterday that the open-source software will...

Novell chairman and chief executive officer Jack Messman told visitors to LinuxWorld yesterday that the open-source software will move into "the core of the enterprise".

The traditionally staid enterprise software company has catapulted itself into the open-source area with its purchase of SuSE Linux and Ximian, and Messman said most suppliers and customers will face the same transition in the near future.

"2004 is going to be the year that Linux goes mainstream on the enterprise server, and soon thereafter, the business users - not just the technical users - will begin the transition to Linux-based desktops," he said.

Messman divided his talk into two parts, discussing open-source technology adoption from first the customers' and then the suppliers' point of view.

Chief information officers beginning to use Linux grapple with security issues and the unfamiliar situation of having multiple developers responsible for critical components, Messman said. Accountability is their main concern, and that creates an opportunity for companies like Novell and Red Hat. He sees Novell as selling not code but services to deliver and support that software code in a way that is comfortable for businesses.

"Customers have spent years learning how to work with proprietary vendors. They expect to be able to make one call ... and say, 'This isn't working. You sold it to us, you fix it,'" he said.

"This is the number-one issue on the minds of CIOs. They want support from someone they can trust. The result has to be the same for customers: One call, one throat to choke. That's all."

Messman said that to reassure buyers, suppliers selling open-source-based software need to do a better job explaining to customers the development processes designed to ensure the software's security, and they need to indemnify their customers against legal responsibility for intellectual property challenges. He cited Novell's indemnification program, introduced last week, as a model for the industry.

He suggested - without naming The SCO Group - that the fight to recoup Linux licensing fees is feeding into the trepidation business executives feel as they consider open-source products.

"Simply because many of us question the claims being made doesn't mean IP issues aren't part of a customer's buying equation," he said. "How much faster would Linux be growing if this issue weren't out there?"

The supplier side is where adoption of open-source development models is most essential, Messman said. At Novell, changing to that model has involved fundamentally revamping the company's development approach.

Programmers accustomed to working on code with a few colleagues down the hall had to learn to collaborate with hundreds of programmers scattered around the world, and the company had to overcome what Messman termed "a bad case of Not Invented Here Syndrome".

Novell has staked its future on adoption of open-source models, and it intends to help steer others in the IT industry in that direction, Messman said.

"We have gained two of the gems of the open-source community. But with that comes responsibility, and we take that responsibility very much to heart.  We will contribute more to open source than we take away," he said. "I commit to you here today that we will not mess this up. SuSE Linux and Ximian simply won't let us. We acquired them, but they will lead the way."

One LinuxWorld attendee said that having Novell's CEO espousing the virtues of open-source development was the most remarkable part of Messman's presentation.

"It's probably less important what he's saying than that he's up there saying it," said Gideon Kory, a research analyst with Roth Capital Partners.

"It sounds like slogans, but if you listen to what he's saying, he gets it. Most of the vendors and the developers don't get it.  He understands the both the business and the technical value, and he can link that together and explain it in business terms."

Stacy Cowley writes for IDG News Service

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