How Much Is Novell's Linux OS Really Worth?

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Mar 23, 2010


Novell, the parent company of SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, seems to have slapped a huge "For Sale!" sign on its front lawn. It's sad, but this famous enterprise OS maker may soon be little more than a mildly interesting footnote to history.

OS Roundup: Stockholders in the Linux OS company are dissatisfied with its performance. Can Novell remedy the situation, or is a sale its best option?

A few weeks back, the company received an unsolicited conditional proposal from the hedge fund Elliot Associates to acquire the 91.5 percent of Novell it didn't already own for $5.75 per share, or around $950 million (net of cash). Novell's board sat and had a think about this and, surprise, surprise, decided the company is worth more.

Well, it would say that, wouldn't it? It was hardly likely to say that its business, which consists of little more than a second-rate enterprise Linux distro, was worth less. The likes of Novell never tell their shareholders to take the money and run.

Instead, the board of the once mighty Novell has promised to look at other ways of keeping its shareholders happy -- whether it be by bribing them with a juicy cash dividend or buying back stock, through strategic partnerships, alliances and joint ventures (whatever that means), or "a recapitalization and a sale of the Company."

Now, as a shareholder you always have to worry when a company you invest in thinks the best thing it can do with your money is give it back to you. The reality is that these options, save the last, are just face-saving measures. The real message from Novell is "come and get me, I'm anyone's for a halfway decent price." A couple of weeks back I looked at the possibility of Microsoft buying Novell's Linux business , and there's no doubt the same thought will have crossed the board of Novell's collective mind.

Talking of Microsoft, the company seems to be doing all right at the moment, especially on the enterprise desktop: 87 percent of IT professionals are currently planning to deploy its Windows 7 desktop OS, according to a global survey carried out by Dell KACE. That's considerably better than the 47 percent that planned to deploy Vista at the same point after its release.

Curiously, almost one-third of respondents say they are considering an alternative desktop OS to Vista or 7, although that's down from 50 percent in 2009. But you must take those figures with a pinch of salt the size of the Titanic. You can almost hear it: "I'm looking for an alternative to Vista or 7. Let's see ... OS X? Chuck out all my PCs and buy overpriced Macs? I don't think so. Linux? Runs on my PCs, plenty of free software, but will my vital XP apps run on it? Probably not."

The truth is 32 percent of the IT professionals surveyed may claim to be considering an alternative OS, but when push comes to shove they'll stick with one from Microsoft. After all, 86 percent of these chaps said they were worried about software compatibility if they migrated to Windows 7. Imagine how much harder it would be to migrate to another platform altogether. Nah -- Microsoft has nothing to worry about on that front.

In any case, Microsoft has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure XP applications will work in 7, offering Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V), which runs XP programs in a virtualized XP bubble in Windows 7, and, XP Mode, a feature of the Professional and Ultimate editions of Windows 7 that runs older applications in an instance of XP running in a virtual machine. Last week it lowered the barrier to running XP Mode with an update, which means XP Mode no longer requires hardware virtualization to run. Previously, XP Mode would run only on machines equipped with a processor that had Intel VT or AMD-V virtualization extensions. This ruled out older PCs as well as netbooks running Intel's Atom processor.

Microsoft clearly has the desktop sewn up, but in the data center it's a different matter altogether. Now that the For Sale Sign is up at Novell, Microsoft must surely be considering making a cheeky offer to get its hands on an enterprise Linux. It may not be Red Hat, but it's better than nothing.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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