Novell's techie fest, Brainshare, opened on July 9 at Darling Harbour with a burst of rock'n'roll that set the mood for an upbeat grab at the Internet space.
What followed was a rather flat tirade from Dr Glen Ricart, who introduced himself as Novell's chief toy officer. It seems everything old is new again at Novell - Ricart announced that the networking giant had rediscovered that it was good at networks, and weak at applications. (Shame they went through two CEOs to figure that one out.) However, don't you wish your company was languishing with a 65 per cent market share, and a paltry billion dollars in the bank? Reports of Novell's death seem once again to be a tad premature.
Ricart took us on a walk down memory lane, reminding us that Novell invented the LAN, as well as starting a new trend in acronyms with its CNE program. I couldn't remember if it stands for "Consume Network Expenditure" or "Control Networks Everywhere", but Novell certainly garnered loyalty from network techies by giving them a piece of paper with a salary multiplier built-in.
Ricart reaffirmed Novell's belief that client/ server is passé, and that we are now entering the client/network paradigm. As the Lotus heavy Jim Manzi once said, "that's the thing about paradigms - shift happens".
Novell's unoriginal idea is that users no longer need to be connected to physical servers - instead they connect to network services, which may or may not be on the same physical server, but the user doesn't know or care; they just log in to the network. Having embraced Java in a bear-hug, Ricart's new boss, CEO Eric Schmidt, told him that no matter how much he was doing with Java, it wasn't enough - it's not surprising to see Novell touting the Sun Microsystems "the network is the computer" mantra.
Novell still hasn't realised that it started out being the small business answer to networked computing, and only discovered corporate acceptance late in the piece - so most of its new offerings are aimed at companies that can afford a permanent Internet presence.
Taking aim at Microsoft and the third-party army, it announced Border Manager, a NetWare box running firewall and proxy services with tight hooks to the Novell Directory Service (NDS). You can, but don't have to, run your Web service on this box as well.
Webmasters will like the idea of being able to granularise access to their networks using the access control lists inherent in NDS. Current off-the-shelf firewalls take the approach of standing a guy at the door with a shotgun who blasts anyone who walks in wearing the wrong protocol, but Border Manager promises to ask for their ID before shooting them on the spot. Providing sticky proxy services will also please Webmasters - you can tell the software to cache a certain site regardless of whether it has been on the recent hit list if you know your troops will go there regularly.
The highlight of the show was the demonstration of the new Wolf Mountain technology, which was occupying half of the stage and humming fit to bust. Consisting of no less than 12 serious file servers (if you count the four still stuck in customs), Novell showed a client accessing all servers at once to balance the load on the network, then pulled the plug on a couple of servers to prove that the client just found some place else to get its files.
To make sure we bought the new direction story, the client was running a Java application to collect its files and monitor the load across the clustered servers. And just in case you thought there was anyone they hate other than Microsoft, seven of the servers were wearing IBM badges - mine enemy's enemy is my friend it seems.
It worked a treat but you can't buy this massive clustering software just yet. In fact, it's going to be released in pieces that add features to your IntraNetWare servers, starting later this year - the whole lot won't be available until the end of next year.
Taking a swipe at Microsoft, which is about to release Wolf Pack, a two-server cluster solution, Novell explained that they didn't think two wolves constitute a pack.
Novell Asia-Pacific's chief, Arthur Ehrlich, came clean and finally admitted what everyone else already knows - Novell's marketing sucks. He promised to spend truckloads of money spreading the word to small business users that you don't actually use the server console - so it doesn't matter if the screen looks like an old DOS box.
He predicted that Novell would be able to counter Microsoft's appeal with its pretty Windows 95-based server screen. He admitted that novice users find the familiar interface beguiling and feel confident that their new Windows NT server is just a faster version of their desktop PC, but claimed that the new IntraNetWare for small business starter pack was selling up a storm, once they were able to convince users that beauty is skin deep.
By the end of the presentation I was still not sure exactly how Novell intends to "rock the Net", but the new technology combined with a new marketing push should at least "rock the boat" at Redmond.
Certainly the 500 or so party-faithful gathered for the event seemed pleased that Big Red was once again talking their language, and not trying to sell them another word processing package. In case you really didn't get the point that Novell is now way cool, hip and switched on, the daily prizes for filling in the seminar evaluation forms consisted of "Novell with Attitude" skateboards.