What next for Novell?

Mergers always begin with vague statements that leave users guessing

In an era of technology industry consolidation, the questions raised by Novell's sale to Attachmate for $2.2 billion ought to be familiar by now. Analysts can only speculate -- and users can only wonder -- what may happen to Novell's deep and extensive enterprise product lines.

Acquisitions almost always lead to some product line consolidation or outright discontinuation, often coupled with changes in pricing and terms of support. It can take months or more before the impact of a merger is felt. Statements by top officials of the acquiring company are supposed to sound reassuring, while they typically lack meaningful details. Such was the case today.

"We have great respect for Novell's business, its employees and its commitment to customers," Jeff Hawn, chairman and CEO of Attachmate, said in a statement announcing the acquisition. "Moreover, we look forward to maintaining and further strengthening Novell and SUSE solutions to meet market demands."

Later, in response to questions, an Attachmate spokesman promised that "current roadmaps and release schedules will stay intact. ...After the closing of the transaction, we will operate a brand portfolio comprising Attachmate, NetIQ, Novell and SUSE. Our priority is to 'do no harm' to the successful standalone operations of all companies as we integrate."

The Attachmate spokesman also said the companies' product lines are "very complementary," adding, "Our portfolio is formed in order to best serve our customers as they want to see long-term commitment to product roadmaps and solution offerings."

Ever since it began shopping itself around earlier this year, Novell has created a degree of ambiguity about its future. Expect that uncertainty to continue for a while.

Gartner analyst Earl Perkins doesn't see any fast changes in products immediately following the acquisition. His advice to users is simple: "Stay put. This technology has been around a long time, they have a big customer base."

"It's not likely at this particular phase, and probably not for more than a year, that you are going to see any major shifts in what Attachmate is going to do with Novell," Perkins said.

Novell products, particularly in the collaboration space, have faced other challenges -- always from Microsoft, but now from Google and other cloud providers.

The city of Los Angeles, for instance, has been moving some 30,000 users from Novell's GroupWise to Google Apps. The change will cost the city some $7.52 million to do, but officials believe they will save millions of dollars in software licensing, maintenance and storage costs.

Perkins said that Novell's GroupWise and general collaboration strategy may be moving toward cloud services. In the hands of the right service provider, "it would actually serve as a pretty good services product for delivering collaboration as a service."

Novell's products include server operating systems, identity management tools and collaboration products including e-mail; management systems called ZENworks; directory services; and SUSE Linux. Attachmate makes terminal emulation products, as well as NetIQ; systems and security management software; and application integration and legacy migration tools.

Bob Schaber, network operations manager for the city of Dublin, Ohio, said his biggest question is about which products Novell will continue developing and whether the focus on any of those products will change.

Schaber would also like to know the implications of Microsoft's involvement. CPTN Holdings LLC, a consortium of technology companies organized by Microsoft, is purchasing nearly 900 Novell patents.

Dublin uses Novell Open Enterprise Server and its teaming and conferencing application.

"We're really comfortable with their product lines, what they offer and how well they work; As long as they keep developing them the way they have in the past we will keep using their products," said Schaber.

One of Novell's most prominent products is SUSE Linux, which it acquired in 2003. In 2006, Novell and Microsoft announced agreement to improve interoperability as well as joint sales agreements.

Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT, said Linux was once seen as something that could push Microsoft's goal of moving quickly into the data center. "That, obviously, hasn't happened," he said. Instead, Linux has become a migration platform mostly for Unix and IBM "has leveraged it very effectively in the mainframe as well."

Major vendors like Oracle are also creating "their own walled gardens" of Linux to preserve competitive advantage, said King -- something he expects to continue.

He believes Linux has a strong future in the data center, "but I haven't heard, I guess what you would call, a statement of direction of where Linux goes from here."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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