Will Server Virtualization Save Novell?

By Amy Newman (Send Email)
Posted Jun 10, 2010

It's been a long time since Novell held center stage. One would would have to go back more than a decade, to the heady days of NetWare and GroupWise, to find Novell at the top of its game. These days, you're more likely to hear Novell described as "a company going nowhere fast."

Virtually Speaking: Or, rather, will an alliance with VMware save the beleaguered company?

Harsh, no doubt, but the SUSE Linux OS Novell picked up back in 2003 has barely picked up enough steam to be an also-ran against Red Hat's Linux. And Novell (NASDAQ: NOVL) has lumbered along since then. In March, it received an unsolicited bid for purchase from the hedge fund Elliot Associates. Novell's board of directors turned it down, believing the company to be worth more than the $950 million, or $5.75 per share, offered. At the time it said the company said it was looking at other options, including "a sale of the company."

ServerWatch OS Roundup columnist Paul Rubens noted shortly after that, "The real message from Novell is 'come and get me, I'm anyone's for a halfway decent price.'"

Perhaps no one was interested, because not a whole lot happened since then. This might also be why Wednesday's announcement that Novell is expanding its relationship with VMware (NYSE: VMW) seems particularly interesting. The companies revealed VMware will distribute and support the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) OS, and it will standardize its virtual appliance offerings on SLES.

The specifics of the deal are fairly straightforward. Customers that opt to deploy SLES for VMware in VMware vSphere virtual machines will receive an SLES subscription that includes patches and updates as part of their newly purchased qualifying VMware vSphere license and support and subscription. In addition, the two companies will work together to enable customers to port their SLES-based workloads across clouds.

More significant is VMware's selection of SLES as the OS of choice for its virtual appliances. Virtual appliances are pre-configured virtual machines containing an OS and an application. They require minimal technical expertise on the part of the enterprise deploying them, and they are aimed squarely at a marketplace potentially put off by the complexities of vSphere or ESX.

By choosing SLES, VMware bypasses any the competition and is making it clear that it will not be placated. It's also not a far leap to speculate that VMware may be taking Novell for a test run before it considers acquiring at least part of the company.

Think about it: Most of the other virtualization vendors have both hypervisor and OS. Microsoft has Windows Server 2008 and Hyper-V; Red Hat has Red Hat Enterprise Linux and KVM; and Oracle now has Solaris, which brings with it ZFS, as well as VirtualBox.

VMware has talked a good game about vSphere being a "data center OS," and VMware ESX is often referred to as an OS. Since VMware's products runs on bare metal (i.e., directly on the machine itself), VMware is not dependent on the OS to function, and thus has always been compatible across a plethora of x86 options.

Novell, on the other hand, has not embraced virtualization anywhere near the degree Red Hat. Partnering is one way to achieve this; being acquired is another -- or at least a way to make it irrelevant.

Amy Newman is the senior managing editor of ServerWatch and Enterprise IT Planet. She has been covering virtualization since 2001, and is the coauthor of Practical Virtualization Solutions, published by Pearson in October 2009.

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