Product Review: NetWare 6: Don't call it a comeback

Major releases of operating systems such as Novell Inc.'s NetWare or Microsoft Corp.'s Windows traditionally have featured major architecture changes that challenged the ability of IT staff to adapt to the new way of thinking. But customers are less inclined than ever to put up with software that requires a "rip and rebuild" of the logical and physical infrastructure every few years. Shrinking budgets require that changes happen smoothly and are transparent to customers and end users.

If your shop never lost its faith in NetWare, or was seduced, then disillusioned, by another operating system, your long wait in the desert is finally over. Although the current economic slump means nobody's predicting pie in the sky for computer hardware and software vendors, Novell stands a strong chance of rebounding if the next release of its flagship network operating system wins acceptance among existing and new customers. The main requirement customers have is that whatever new operating system is adopted, it must not upset the already rickety apple cart.

After examining Beta 3 of NetWare 6, we are impressed: Novell has finally created a NetWare server that you can drop into your existing network without creating a splash. Even someone with no previous NetWare experience can have a server up and running and available to users within a few hours. NetWare 6 no longer requires clients to install any special software, so end-user installation is reduced to a few clicks in a Web browser. Client software is provided for backward compatibility with NetWare 3.x/4.x/5.x servers or to use with Novell tools such as the ZENworks for Desktops management software.

The new NetWare's openness may be its most important feature, and it is manifested in many ways. Using the desktop's basic networking protocols, Native File Access Pack allows a NetWare server to present itself to desktops running Linux, Macintosh and Windows operating systems. This alone could make NetWare 6 a serious alternative both for IT managers who are considering Microsoft's Windows server family and for the growing and vocal Linux and Unix contingents.

Other examples of NetWare 6's new open-access philosophy are found in the iFolder and iPrint features. With iFolder, mobile users can access their files flexibly and securely via a Web browser; iPrint makes managing and using printer resources easier by employing a combination of Novell Distributed Print Services and Internet Printing Protocol at the server and a Web browser plug-in on the client. This allows IT departments to map printers in a whole new way. Novell includes a tool that takes a floor plan image and adds printer icons in the appropriate locations. A user need only find a printer to configure it, including the driver download, with a couple of clicks.

Finally, NetWare 6's browser- and Java-based management tools continue to improve. The Java-based Console One replaces NetWare Administrator, a 32-bit Windows application that can't scale to manage the many thousands of objects in the larger Novell Directory Services (NDS) trees being used today. The Management Portal provides a secure Web-based interface that's the next best thing to being in the server room.

Although room for improvement remains, particularly in the excessive number of entry points for configuring and managing your system (for example, a stock installation displays nine or 10 console screens), we're impressed with the variety of tasks that can be configured without requiring physical access to the server. Obviously, this doesn't mean running around with your management features wide open. All it takes is a slight tweak of your firewall rules to mask the management services from the outside world, so we don't see the Web-based management offering attackers much of a grip.

Browser-based access not only relieves administrators of more midnight trips to the data center but also permits better management of remote systems at sites that may not be able to afford a full-time IT position. Moreover, browser-based tools facilitate the building of custom management pages that consolidate data from various servers into a single view, providing a single-click look at the health of a device. This becomes more crucial as bigger and bigger servers become the engine behind many enterprises.

As companies seek to take advantage of expanding hardware capacities in memory, multiprocessor support and storage, scalability becomes increasingly important. NetWare 6 can address as much as 64GB of RAM, supports systems with as many as 32 CPUs and offers in-the-box support via Novell Storage Services (NSS) 3.0 for file systems as large as 8TB, with as many as 1 million simultaneous open files. NSS also helps get NetWare servers online more quickly by offering a streamlined volume-mounting process, which is especially useful when clustering servers in front of a storage-area network.

Speaking of clusters, NetWare 6 offers built-in support for two-node clusters, and clusters of as many as 32 nodes are easily configured; larger clusters can be built with support from Novell Consulting Services.

Novell has put much effort into making the adoption of NetWare 6 a technical nonissue. One problem shops have experienced when moving from one NetWare version to the next is ensuring that critical directory information remains accessible. To address this, the NetWare Deployment Manager can examine the NDS software on existing servers and install updates as part of the preparation. These patches are necessary only if shops haven't kept their NetWare servers up to date with the available support packs; likewise, non-NetWare servers running NDS (Linux, Solaris, Windows NT or Windows 2000, for example) with current software shouldn't experience interoperability issues with NetWare 6.

The only snag we had while installing NetWare 6 involved a loose patch cable; we therefore deem the setup routine idiot-proof. If you're installing it on a network that already includes NDS servers, it's wise to run the Deployment Manager before you boot the new server. If you forget (as we did), it's possible to pop out the NetWare 6 CD and mount it on a Windows desktop to double-check that your existing servers are up to snuff when prompted. The setup program asks some standard questions about your hardware and location preferences, and then a couple of hours later, your file server is ready for use.

We eagerly await the final release of NetWare 6, since we remember the days when installing Novell's NetWare was a no-brainer. Back in the early 1990s, no other serious contender existed for leadership in the network operating system space. Sure, there were devotees of Banyan Vines, various Unix dialects and even the ghastly IBM/Microsoft LAN Manager project, but Novell had everything going for it: technology, cash flow and momentum. Then the company frittered it away while Microsoft used Windows NT 4 to eat Novell's lunch and supper. Today, as Microsoft keeps putting off its customers with incremental releases of Windows NT, 2000 and .Net Server, NetWare 6 might be just what Novell needs to regain relevance and market share. It certainly offers customers everything they're looking for: open access, reliability, scalability and security.

Senior analyst (P.J. Connolly) covers groupware, messaging, networking and security.

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This story, "Product Review: NetWare 6: Don't call it a comeback" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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