Skills shortage hobbles Novell

Novell and several of its partners have acknowledged the vendor is suffering from a chronic shortage of skilled engineers across the country. But they have forecast its adoption of Linux will help its market share bounce back.

Comunet managing director, Paul Lewin, blamed the national skills shortage on engineers jumping ship to Microsoft. The Adelaide-based reseller, which has been a Novell platinum partner for four years, recently opened a branch office in Sydney due to a perceived lack of skills in NSW.

"There are a small number of well-trained Novell engineers at reseller level, which means there is limited ability to sell the product," he said. "If you ask engineers what they want to get trained in, they will automatically say Microsoft. It's promoted that way. You don't get sacked for putting in a Microsoft solution.

"For us, Novell is a niche we deal with, and it's a good thing as not many people are doing it. But they need to get more skilled engineers."

Dimension Data Learning Solutions general manager, Steve Ross, said there were still plenty of engineers with residual skills in Novell. Like Lewin, he suggested the problem was that many were focusing on more high-profile, and therefore profitable, certifications.

"There is no doubt that there are a lot of Novell skills in the marketplace," Ross said. "It was dominant but people are no longer using those skills." Novell had once been a large part of its training business, he said. However, it was currently sitting at under 3 per cent. By contrast, Microsoft was a major part of its revenue, alongside Cisco.

Most of the training for Novell was focused on maintaining certifications, rather than new engineers coming on board, Ross said. "If you're looking at the opportunities out there, there are 10 times as many jobs in Microsoft than Novell," he claimed. "The market goes where the most dollars are."

Novell Asia-Pacific channel operations manager, Greg Kieser, insisted the skills shortage had been brought on by the slow acceptance of its role as a broader supplier of software than NetWare.

"Novell has moved on; we have not been static," he said. "We have a very different skill set to what engineers have traditionally needed." One of the biggest shifts in the vendor's product roadmap has been its acquisition of SuSE Linux in November 2003. The move has seen it step aside from its NetWare operating system environment in favour of an open source platform.

Kieser said introducing new open source technologies like SuSE Linux had been challenging to support.

"We know demand exceeds supply," he said. "But we are engaging in an intensive amount of training during this financial year. Education for us is vital for revitalising our channel efforts and to get engineers to re-engage, re-certify and rediscover that Novell no longer equals NetWare."

Earlier this year, Novell released its Open Enterprise Server platform running on Linux. Kieser said this transition would cause growing pains.

"This product has a good message but is waiting for the volume of our Novell Certified Engineers to update their certifications," he said. "For us, getting engineers to adopt Linux and update their strategy is a challenge."

To help with certification renewal in the channel, Novell was providing subsidies on training as well as offering some courses for free, Kieser said.

Partners currently selling Linux-based solutions are required to have sales people trained in the platform. Although this does not yet apply to technicians, he flagged this as a future addition.

The vendor also planned to introduce new specialist channel streams under a Demand Agent Program by the end of 2005. These would include Linux and security identity management specialists.

"Resellers can still be traditional partners - there's room in the model for that," Kieser said.

Nevertheless, there would be bottom line benefits to becoming a specialist partner, he said.

Starcom sales manager, David Fudge, said there had been some delays in making the Linux courses available. The integrator is a long-time platinum Novell partner as well as a gold Microsoft partner and has recently been appointed to the NSW panel contract for Linux services.

"If Novell wants to make an impact on Linux, it has to support skilling up [with channel partners]," he said.

For Jasco Consulting's director, Jason McClintock, keeping up its Microsoft business had been more important than investing in further Novell skills. The integrator recently dropped from Novell's platinum partner ranks to gold status after obtaining top-tier status last year.

McClintock said it did not have the required four certified engineers to continue as a platinum partner.

"It would have cost us about $10,000 to get the required numbers," he said. "We didn't see the benefit of additional training just to get the status symbol when we have 2-3 people focused on Novell."

Instead, the company had chosen to keep focusing strongly on Microsoft, McClintock said.

"We are making money in networking and the good old Microsoft sector," he said. "Diverting resources from money-making into building up areas [like Novell] didn't seem a good decision. This [Microsoft] is where our development and education has been and there's no shortage of work.

"As we get more customers we will look at it again."

Most partners agreed that once the channel had obtained the necessary open source knowledge, Novell would see a surge in customer uptake. Comunet's Lewin said the adoption of Linux had given the software vendor access to a new generation of engineers looking to deliver older but well respected proprietary applications across an open platform.

"Linux will be big thing for Novell," he said. "There's a different breed of people in Linux. Once they accept all products can sit on Linux then Novell will do well. It would have had problems without it."

Jasco's McClintock said there was interest in Linux regardless of platform.

"People are looking at Linux as an option generally - for backend or peripheral systems," he said. "Novell has a big focus in that area and will be successful."