View from the Trenches: Goodbye SuSE?

by Glenn Stone

I woke up yesterday morning, 11/4/03, to learn that SuSE had been bought by Novell, pending the usual hurdles. I already could hear the Net sizzling with various references to the Deity and other less printable exclamations, some along the lines of "Goodbye, SuSE".

But wait a minute. What does this really mean, for us ordinary folk? Well, for starters, let's read the third paragraph of the press release:

Novell today also announced that IBM intends to make a $50 million investment in Novell convertible preferred stock. In addition, Novell and IBM are negotiating extensions to the current commercial agreements between IBM and SUSE LINUX for the continued support of SUSE LINUX on IBM's eServer products and middleware products to provide for product and marketing support arrangements related to SUSE LINUX. Both of these agreements will be effective when the acquisition of SUSE LINUX by Novell is completed.

Now, think about that. Novell paid $210 million for SuSE, cash on the barrel-head. It had way more money than that figure in the bank, and the company is debt-free, despite having bought Ximian earlier this year. Novell easily could have completed the acquisition without IBM's help. And it's not like either transaction was anything less than amicable. SuSE admitted in the post-sale press conference that they wanted to partner, and the fact that the IBM transaction is preferred stock has "approval" written on the face of it. So, in essence, this is a friendly three-way partnering.

If you've been following IBM, you know what IBM's position on Linux is. IBM was the first old-money company to invest in Linux, way back in the 20th century, when it bought a chunk of Red Hat. When I got my RHCE, four of the twelve people in my class were career IBMers sent to certify their Linux chops. IBM's people subsequently contributed a significant chunk of GPL code, including the JFS, POSIX threading and the Omni Print Driver. This is the same code, along with the GPL itself, IBM now are defending vigorously in court in Utah. IBM easily could have squashed the plaintiffs like a bug, bought them out, paid them a settlement, told them to go away and made it stick. Indeed, I thought they would. But, no, I'm coming to realize that IBM, having made a significant investment in the GPL and Linux itself, is now going to defend it from all comers. Which is what I think this stock deal is about, from its point of view: IBM is moving to protect its investment in Linux.

And Novell, by letting IBM do this, is saying, "Okay, fine; we're all on the same page here." Remember that the last big acquisition for Novell was Ximian. Novell has been server-side for years, and proprietary at that. But as our own Doc Searls found out back in August, IBM is not the only enterprise company that Gets It about Linux. Doc, quoting Ximian founder Nat Friedman:

What we discovered coming into Novell, by the time we stated meeting with them, (was that) they had already made the decision that Linux was where the industry was going, that open source was the right model, and that there was an enormous opportunity here for an actual enterprise software company to do a great job of driving Linux adoption and solving a lot of problems.... Novell was the first actual enterprise software company to do that. So we got excited because we always had a very grand set of ambitions in terms of what we'd like to accomplish and where we'd like to go.

And where is this all going? Again, Doc quotes Nat:

The desktop is the next big thing for Linux. This is where we're going to see the most exciting activity, the most non-incremental and explosive activity, in the next couple of's going to be an edge-in thing...technical workstations -- all the UNIX workstations are going to be Linux. It's Intel. It's cheaper. It just makes more sense. And then you move in to single use cases like supply chain management, customer relationship management, where people use one or two applications on a daily basis. And as we progress over the next several years, we'll move toward the general office worker.

General office worker. That's you and me, gang, plus our secretaries and bookkeepers and, eventually, Great Aunt Ednas. But you've got a problem here. You've got a server application and you've got a desktop, but you need something to run it on. Sure, you can use Linux. But whose Linux? You need world-class support, 24x7, because that's the kind of thing people expect from Novell. Red Hat didn't want to do a partner deal, according to the remarks in the press conference. But SuSE always did want to partner.

Novell said it will continue to support UnitedLinux. What this means in light of certain lawsuits is, of course, an open question. In the meantime, you'll be able to get SuSE Linux from your Novell channel partner. It still will be SuSE; Novell plans to maintain the brand. Most importantly, Novell does not intend to compete with the dominant paradigm on the desktop but, rather, to decrease impediments to getting Linux into the market. I would look for a large investment in Samba, Ximian Connector and new products in that general direction.

IBM re-invented itself over the last decade of the 20th century; it went from being a mainframe company to exploring proprietary UNIX heavily to now being, in large part, a Linux company. SuSE and Ximian always were Linux companies, good ones that survived the dot-bomb era and thrived. Now Novell is hard at work re-inventing itself as a Linux company, and I think it will be quite successful at it.

What does all this mean for you and me? Two things, I think. First, I think we're going to see a lot more support for Linux on the desktop, in terms of gee-whiz programs and interoperability and in terms of toll-free numbers we can call when things break. Second, Novell is going to need people to write all that code and man all those support desks (or to re-train the folks that already do). This will be a fine shot in the wallet for us penguinheads. No, folks, SuSE isn't going away anytime soon. If anything, it'll thrive--IBM will see to that even if Novell doesn't--and pass the benefits on to us, like it always has. This is a Happy Thing, down here in the trenches.

Glenn Stone is a Red Hat Certified Engineer, sysadmin, technical writer, cover model and general Linux flunkie. He has been hand-building computers for fun and profit since 1999, and he is a happy denizen of the Pacific Northwest.


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