New NetWare embraces Web apps

Novell next week will launch a public beta of NetWare 5.1, the company's most ambitious attempt yet to penetrate the Web application server market now controlled by the likes of Microsoft and the Sun-Netscape Alliance.

Novell, whose network operating system has been known for its file and print serving capabilities, has upgraded NetWare 5 in several ways to better serve applications -- particularly those that are accessible via the Web and which need to interact with databases and other back-end systems.

Novell last week previewed the new features in Version 5.1, code-named Cobra, at an exclusive gathering of product testers in San Jose. Among the features:

A bundled edition of IBM's WebSphere Standard Edition, a Java application development tool.

Netscape Enterprise Web Server and a browser-based tool for managing it.

Oracle8i, an Internet and database development platform.

An FTP server, news server and Web search engine.

A revised NetWare kernel that can handle transactions faster and includes additional caching algorithms for speeding Web processing.

Support for a slew of Microsoft Web tools and technologies, including Active Server Pages, Office 2000, Visual Basic Script and FrontPage 2000.

Users -- even those unimpressed by previous Novell application server attempts -- are anxious to give the revised edition of NetWare a try.

Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta was using Novell's initial NetWare Web Server, which ran as a NetWare Loadable Module (NLM), but the company replaced the Novell software with Netscape Enterprise Server. However, Bill Burson, the organisation's assistant director of IT, says he'll install NetWare 5.1 as soon as it's available and use WebSphere for application development.

"We think all the Web pages need to be generated from an application server that end users can access and that is tied to back-end databases," said Burson, who believes NetWare 5.1 will address this issue.

Analysts' opinions are mixed regarding NetWare 5.1. Some say the technology looks good, but that Novell may be too late. Others say more and more data is being housed on application servers accessible via the Web and that opportunities are essentially limitless -- regardless of how late Novell is getting into the market.

"Typically, you don't think of NetWare and application servers in the same space," said Todd Chipman, an analyst with Giga Information Group in Massachusetts "Part of the reason for that is [former Novell CEO] Bob Frankenberg's infamous statement that 'Novell is not an application server company'."

Analysts say Novell historically has not provided customers with enough tools to develop a wide range of NetWare applications. Novell developers were stuck writing applications as NLMs, which involves working in a complex programming environment. Meanwhile, Windows and Unix programmers had access to a host of popular application development tools, ranging from Visual Basic to Visual C.

Novell began bolstering its tool offerings a couple of years back by releasing the Java Development Kit, and now Novell is going even further, said Phil Schacter, an analyst with The Burton Group in Utah.

Observers also say there has been a perception that NetWare couldn't handle transactions as efficiently as Windows NT or Unix because it lacked pre-emptive processing. NetWare 5.1 will gain support for this technology, which will allow applications to be pre-empted and prioritised, said Brian Faustyn, director of product marketing at Novell.

IDC analyst Al Gillen says NetWare 5.1 might be just the thing to keep NetWare customers from moving to NT or Linux. "A lot of companies need a reason to stay with NetWare. For the NetWare-installed base, NetWare 5.1 is going to be a very attractive product," he said.

But Schacter warns that NetWare 5.1 is probably not going to turn a lot of heads at Unix or NT shops. "Is a trained Solaris administrator going to move off Sun because NetWare 5.1 is available? Is this a product that doesn't require a trained NetWare administrator?" he asked rhetorically.

Novell is expected to ship NetWare 5.1 in the first quarter at the same price as NetWare 3, 4 and 5. A 100-user NetWare licence costs roughly $US8200.