Novell vs. Red Hat: Linux vs. Linux

If you think about where Linux is fighting for market and mind-share, chances are you're thinking about Linux slugging it out with Microsoft Windows or Sun Solaris on the server, or trying to tear desktop customers away from Windows, and to a far lesser extent, from Mac OS X. That's all true, but there's also fierce competition between Linux distributions.

Some of that conflict is inside baseball stuff. Some Debian developers, for example, are jealous of Ubuntu's popularity and some developers feel that Ubuntu hasn't done enough for Linux. Unless you're a Linux insider this kind of stuff isn't going to matter to you.

What is going to matter to everyone who buys and deploys operating systems is that Novell is heating up its competition with the number one Linux distributor: Red Hat. On November 11th, Novell announced a new subscription and support program "designed to aid customers making the transition from their existing third-party Linux distribution to SLES (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server)." What makes this interesting is that the three-year SLES subscription under this plan also includes two years of technical support for a customer's existing Linux deployments while they make the SLES transition.

That's new. I can't recall ever seeing a vendor offering to support the competition's offering while helping you to transition to their product. It does make sense. This is Linux after all. There are a lot of differences between how Novell handles management with its ZENworks and Red Hat does the same jobs with its Red Hat Network, but underneath the top-level management tools a good Linux administrator won't have any trouble running either SLES or RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux).

Novell claims that this "new program is in response to growing customer demand for help as they make the strategic decision to transition their data center Linux infrastructure from existing third-party distributions, such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux and CentOS, to SUSE Linux Enterprise Server." In a statement, Novell's Justin Steinman, vice president of Solution and Product Marketing, said, "As the Linux market matures, we are increasingly being approached by customers who want to move to SUSE Linux Enterprise, attracted by Novell's award-winning support, superb interoperability in mixed-source environments, and by our support for mission critical applications. This new program makes it even easier for these customers to make the move to Novell." This program is already available today from Novell sales.

I honestly haven't seen that many RHEL or CentOS customers wanting to switch to anything else myself, but I have met some, just as I've met SLES users who were moving to RHEL, or its low-cost clone CentOS. Novell goes on to claim that in "a customer study conducted by independent research firm Lighthouse Research, Novell gained top ratings for overall support, and significantly outpaced Red Hat and Oracle Linux on both timeliness of phone support and support of mixed platforms, open source and proprietary software."

I've used both Novell and Red Hat support. Frankly, they're both good, and I can't call one better than the other. I will say, however, that I've found both Red Hat and Novell to do a better job than Oracle Linux support team. There is one area, where Novell does do a better job than Red Hat. Novell refers to it cautiously as "mixed platforms," "proprietary software," and "superb interoperability in mixed-source environments." What they're really talking about is that, thanks to Novell's Microsoft partnership, Novell SLES does a better job of working in tandem with Windows Server 2003, 2008 and related server/network services like AD (Active Directory).

Joint Windows/Linux support is something that a lot of businesses need. That said, Novell working hand-in-glove with Microsoft doesn't go over at all well with many Linux users. Boycott Novell, after all, which serves as the lightning rod for resentment against Novell and Microsoft working together, is a very popular site.

Be that as it may, Novell, which has profited from its Microsoft relationship, is planning on making even more from it by going after other Linux business contracts rather than Linux's traditional growth market of Unix and Windows Server shops. I'm going to be very interested in seeing how it plays out and what Red Hat will do in response to Novell's aggressive moves.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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