Novell Unveils SUSE Linux Enterprise 10 At XChange


System builders' reactions mixed on plans to adopt new platform


If packed demo rooms are any indication of interest in its latest Linux desktop, Novell has a willing audience.

The scrappy operating system company, which stormed the Linux and open-source scene with its buyout of SUSE Linux two years ago, delivered a challenge to the XChange Tech Connect audience last week in Las Vegas: Take a risk and offer your customers another choice in operating systems.

"Don't slip into comfortable inaction," said Ladd Timpson, global director of channel and partner marketing at Novell, during his keynote session.

Several market factors are playing to Novell's message, he said, including new licensing and support models, the urgent need for secure computing environments, the reality of heterogeneity and the ongoing need to cut costs.

The Waltham, Mass.-based software company also used XChange to deliver a special sneak preview of its updated and upcoming Linux desktop to attendees, in both its keynote and a packed-to-the-gills demonstration room.

"We're pushing to make that the No. 1 [Linux] distribution, of course. But Novell is not just a Linux company," Timpson said, touting Novell's positions in identity and resource management, and the data center.

Novell Senior Engineer Peter Bowen tested the beta edition of SUSE Linux Enterprise 10, showcasing, among other things, its support for pulling in Visual Basic scripts as well as Active Directory synchronization and full NetWare integration.

Novell executives freely admit that this product is not for the desktop power user who uses every single Excel feature, but the company is positioning its offering as a viable alternative for fixed-function, transactional or technical workstations as well as basic desktops.

The software's integrated "application browser" feature drew nods of approval from the audience. The technology intuitively figures out what application needs to be launched based on word(s) typed into the search query. For desktop searches, queries pull up pertinent results across multiple applications including documents, instant messages, e-mail (including attachments) and Web browsers.

Bowen also demonstrated the ability to toggle quickly between multiple applications, presenting the user with an active thumbnail view. Users can even flip between desktop views on more than one dimension, a feature that might appeal to system builders that want to place machines in multiuser settings.

Novell's Timpson did not provide pricing details for the forthcoming update, which is due in July, but the current price tag for the Novell Linux Desktop, powered by the SUSE Linux kernel, is $50.

"I don't think we believe in any way that we're going to displace Microsoft," Timpson said in a separate interview before the presentation. "But this gives [solution providers and system builders] a way to reduce their costs and increase their profitability."

During an XChange panel discussion following Novell's presentation, Gary Clayton, vice president of Entre Technology Group, a Fort Worth, Texas-based system builder that provides highly-specialized embedded systems for the medical market, urged system builders to consider a Linux alternative.

"On a $500 to $700 desktop PC, the Microsoft license is your single largest cost, so why not consider the Linux desktop, if it is a lower cost?" Clayton said. "Bring it out therewhen [Microsoft] sees their largest contingency is starting to adopt a platform from another manufacturer we just might get their attention."

Several system builders attending the session said they will seriously look at Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise 10 because of their frustration with Microsoft and its pricing.

David Lair, owner of Lair Services, a Brandon, Fla., Microsoft partner, said he is anxious to evaluate SUSE Linux Enterprise 10. "I am going to put it on a couple of test boxes," he said. "The last time I looked at Novell was 1996. Now they are doing this. If they can get this out before Christmas, Microsoft is going to lose a whole lot of their steam with Vista."

Don Allison, owner of Media2Play, a Tuscon, Ariz.-based system builder, said the marketplace now is more receptive to a Linux alternative. "The whole market has changed radically in the last couple of years," he said. "The hardware margins have slimmed down. Open source is coming into its own. People are looking for alternatives."

Some system builders, however, said although they are frustrated by Microsoft's near monopoly-like position on the desktop, they would be hard-pressed to switch to Linux.

Robert Nitrio, president of Ranvest Associates, a Microsoft solution provider in Orangeville, Calif., said there is a big "inertia" factor with Linux. "That is the key element," he said. "I will definitely take a look at SUSE Linux, but as much as I might like it, I still have to go back to my clients and look at the total return on investment of the proposition. You have to make hardware changes, code changes and then bring in new software that runs on the Linux platform ... and get them up and running. There are costs there."