Novell and Markus Rex: Reinventing An Empire

In the 1990's Novell's NetWare dominated the networking industry with over 70% of the global market share. Their technical certifications were the industry's gold standard and offered titles such as Certified Novell Engineer, Master Certified Novell Engineer, Certified Novell Directory Engineer, and Novell Administrator. Just ten years later, the networking giant of the 20th century would find itself in a struggle to maintain relevance in the new millennium. The solution came as a change in strategy that would shift the company's focus from networking technologies to low level software and a new venture into an open sourced operating system of their own.

Microsoft's networking technologies had become increasingly prevalent with the successes of the NT platform and a shift in development from its more desktop centric operating systems to the more enterprise oriented Windows 2000. With the battle for networking technology all but lost, Novell fell back on its low level software development and in an effort to compete with Microsoft's Office suite, acquired WordPerfect. In 1996, Novell ended up selling WordPerfect to Corel when it couldn't gain market share. Ironically, it would be the acquisition of German based SuSe Linux in 2004 that would put Novell back in the ring with the operating system that had nearly wiped them out a few years prior.

Markus Rex joined Novell during the acquisition process of SuSe Linux in 2004. Six years later, he is Novell's Senior Vice President and General Manager of Open Source Solutions, and a LinuxCon keynote speaker. The Renaissance Hotel's Pacific conference room was well past seating capacity before the scheduled 8:00 am address, with standing room at a premium by the time he took the stage. In a presentation entitled “Empowering the Imagination For Tomorrow's Linux Workloads”, Markus made one thing clear: He is VERY excited about Linux. In an interview later that afternoon, Markus explained the dynamics behind his company's shift in strategy, his love for Linux and his thoughts on the Linux community at large.

I asked Markus if SUSE (now without the lowercase letters) had a strategy to compete with Canonical's success with their Linux Desktop, Ubuntu. To put it simply, they don't see the need for one. He credits Canonical for creating a desktop distribution that he described as being “slick”. It was agreed that their notoriety was derived from its appealing desktop and its vast hardware compatibility. He says this to demonstrate the key difference between Ubuntu and SUSE Linux. SUSE's main focus has always been server infrastructure. He pointed out that servers very rarely come with sound cards or high end graphics capabilities that desktop users look for when shopping for a Linux distribution. SUSE's main focus has been concentrating on stability and functionality. As a result, SUSE Linux boasts more certified applications than any other distribution in existence today.

Admittedly, SUSE does not have the same market share in the United States as they do in the European countries. Where they do have the advantage over the other Linux distributions is in its complete dominance in the emerging markets in China. SUSE Linux has managed to succeed in the Chinese market where other pay-for-service technologies including Microsoft have failed in the past.

When I asked Markus what gets him excited about Linux, his face lit up with an ear to ear smile that would be familiar to anyone exposed to the open source community. He recalled how happy he was as an Unix administrator when Linux was first made available. Unix wasn't something you could take home he notes, and so Linux was a very exciting prospect. His greatest thrill comes from the validity that Linux has received as it has matured into a globally implemented operating system. The days of using open source as a scape goat for failed projects is over, and that Markus points out, is very good.

Markus attributes the success of Linux adoption to the community of developers and testers who contribute to the open source community freely of their own efforts. The developments that drive openSUSE, Fedora and several other major distributions keep Linux on the cutting edge of technology and contribute highly to its overall security and robust stability. When asked for his advice to the community, Markus was very frank. “Linux wouldn't be where it is today if everyone focused on their own short term goals”. He points out that it is in everybody's best interest to focus more on strengthening the projects we have rather than forking a new project every time there is a need for a new feature.

While there are a number of Linux distributions committed to making improvements to the server and desktop platforms, SUSE Linux has carved a niche of their own. Their decision to focus on complete stability and usability of an enterprise class operating system (not to mention a list of thousands of industry certified applications) has positioned them as a defacto leader in European and Asian markets. It was an operating system that took the networking giant to the edge of extinction. Fifteen years later it is an operating system that not only revitalized the company, but once again put Novell back on top of a global market. With Markus Rex at the helm, wherever the company turns their attention to next, something exciting is bound to happen.

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