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Open Enterprise: Can Novell's open source vision be delivered?

Open Enterprise: Can Novell's open source vision be delivered?

In Part One of my look at Novell last week(Novell faces setbacks in open source strategy 30/11/05), my topic was empty chairs. This week, I'll look at the other side of the story. There are new bodies occupying key seats at Novell these days, a sure sign that the company's bid to regain its prominence in the server software market isn't over yet.

Trying out his office at Novell HQ is Jeffrey Jaffe. Previously, he was president of Lucent Technologies' storied Bell Labs. He has just begun his tenure as Novell's executive vice-president and CTO, the company's first technology officer since Alan Nugent left in March.

Although Jaffe brings considerable technical acumen to the table, the job he's taking on won't be easy. Financial analysts and key Novell shareholders have been clamouring for change, both in direction and product line. They want to see Novell increase its emphasis on open source. Jaffe fully intends to meet that demand.

"I have believed for a long time, actually starting from when I was at IBM, that open source and open standards are what customers want," he said. "It gives them choice and low-cost computing."

When the subject of cost cutting is raised, critics often cite the company's ZENworks and GroupWise products as prime candidates for the chop. But although Jaffe wouldn't comment on specific Novell products, he seemed reluctant to discount these server management and groupware assets. "There are obviously customers out there that have existing infrastructure," Jaffe said. "And part of making open source relevant is introducing it in a way that works with their existing infrastructure."

So far he gets top marks from me. What's less clear is how Jaffe intends to tackle the broader technical challenges Novell currently faces - for example, how to unify the disparate Suse and Ximian open source development teams.

"All the people in the open source community really need to be working together, and that's part of my job: to get everybody working together to make open source a reality for customers," Jaffe said. "I think getting the focus on delighting customers is the way to unify people."

Unfortunately, although that's an admirable sentiment, it's ultimately an empty one. "Delighting customers" is a great goal for Novell. After all, Novell has customers. The open source community, on the other hand, doesn't. Nor does it even have products in the traditional sense.

Getting everybody working together is also a laudable goal for a manager. To expect Jaffe to be the CTO of Novell is one thing; expecting him to act as CTO of a loosely knit, geographically dispersed community is another. In the end, it all comes down to execution once again. For its Linux business, creating value above and beyond what the open source community can provide and marketing that value to customers is the biggest challenge of all.

Jaffe's appointment seems to be a step in the right direction, but the man occupying the other new executive chair at Novell may be an even bigger step. Ron Hovsepian was promoted to the job of Novell's president and COO last month. If the rumours are true that he's on the fast track to replace Jack Messman in the CEO spot, it could be the surest sign yet that there's a light at the end of the tunnel for this struggling company.


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