Novell Sells Out to Attachmate, Leaves the Future of Suse Linux Unclear

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The announcement that Novell has agreed to sell itself to Attachmate for $2.2 billion does absolutely nothing to remove the huge question mark hanging over the future of Suse Linux Enterprise Server (SLES), Novell's open source Linux OS. Annoyingly for SLES customers, it actually raises as many questions as it answers.

The announcement that Novell has agreed to sell itself is no surprise. The buyer -- Attachmate -- is, as is the agreed-upon price of $2.2 billion. Meanwhile, the future of Suse Linux Enterprise Server remains unclear, as does Microsoft's role in the deal.

Novell put itself up for sale eight months ago following a takeover offer from hedge find Elliott Associates. Since then, long-suffering SLES customers have had to put up with uncertainty and doubt about the future of the server OS. Many of them must be wishing they'd made life simpler by picking Red Hat as their Linux supplier when they made their original purchasing decision. After all, no-one ever got sacked for not choosing Novell.

What SLES customers do now know is that their server OS is going to be supplied by a company that "enables IT organizations to extend mission-critical services and assures they are managed, secure, and compliant." Which is nice, but not necessarily reassuring. When you rely on an OS to power the mission-critical workloads in your company, I'm guessing you want a well-known systems company standing behind it. Put it this way: All things being equal, would you rather get your server OS from a company like Oracle, IBM, HP or Red Hat, or from a conglomerate knocked together by a handful of private equity firms?

There has been no indication so far that any of the key people behind SLES will be changing, so the sale of Novell might not alter things for customers in the short term. But what of the longer term? The truth is that we don't know at this stage.

Part of the deal involves Novell selling "certain intellectual property assets to CPTN Holdings, a consortium of technology companies organized by Microsoft," for $450 million. What these intellectual property assets are and what CPTN Holdings will do with them is anyone's guess.

The only clue is that the mysterious CPTN has been organized by Microsoft, and Microsoft, you'll recall, has been using Novell as its not-so-undercover agent in the Linux world for some years. The Redmond company has been paying Novell for Linux support certificates, which it gives away or sells to Windows customers that want to use Linux as well, in effect subsidizing SLES so it's less expensive for customers to choose Novell's Linux rather than Red Hat's. It's also promised not to sue Novell's Linux customers for patent infringement. In exchange, Microsoft has been getting the inside track into what its customers want to do with Linux, and Novell and Microsoft have been working together to ensure SLES works well as a guest server OS on Microsoft's Hyper-V virtualization system.

Microsoft buying Novell outright was probably always out of the question -- the outcry from all sorts of parties would have been too great. But given the lengths Microsoft has gone to establish a relationship with Novell, it's almost inconceivable that the company would want to abandon it altogether. And as far as Attachmate is concerned, why would the company want to buy Novell if it thought the cozy relationship between SUSE and Microsoft was in any doubt? It's not as though SLES makes a vast amount of money with Microsoft's help, let alone without it.

So the odds are good that whatever the intellectual property CPTN is buying turns out to be, it is something that will cement the relationship between Microsoft and SLES under its new owners.

How or even whether the Attachmate deal benefits SLES customers, though, is still far from clear. For this group of long suffering enterprise Linux users, the game of wait and see continues ...

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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This article was originally published on Nov 24, 2010
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