Interoperability Promised


As part of the multi-faceted pact announced Nov. 2, the longstanding archrivals have pledged to develop glue code that optimizes Novell's SUSE Linux-based Xen virtual machines on Windows and Windows virtual machines on Linux.

More important, they have pledged to provide technical support for customers running a mix of platforms and agreed to a "patent covenant" that shields their mutual customers from any patent liability through 2012. Those lingering issues continue to spook corporate users from using Linux.

"This pact is great for customers and validates Linux having a role in the enterprise alongside the Microsoft enterprise platform," said Tom Richer, global Microsoft practice lead at at Binary Tree, a New York-based Microsoft Gold partner. "This move should be a signal to Microsoft systems integrators that Linux does have a role in the enterprise, and they should focus more on setting up integration between the Linux and Microsoft platforms rather than promoting an all-or-nothing story," he said.

"While channel partners who have aligned with both in the past have been criticized by each vendor for partnering with their competition, their agnostic and enterprise-centric view is obviously now justified," Richer added.

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Many Novell and Microsoft partners hope the pact will end longstanding integration headaches, while some open-source partners dismiss the deal as a hollow attempt by two proprietary software companies to scare customers away from Red Hat by offering cross-patent indemnification.

Still, many partner executives say the pact should increase sales of SUSE Linux and stimulate deployment of virtualization software, essentially creating a new wave of service and solutions business for VARs, systems integrators, system builders and ISVs with a cross-platform mindset.

The virtualization support has strategic interest for Microsoft and Novell as virtualization technologies disrupt the OS business. Microsoft needs to establish Windows as a virtualization-friendly platform, partners say.

After Novell released SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 earlier this summer, for example, partners and customers said they were concerned about deploying Xen-based virtual machines on Windows servers because there were no stated support promises from either vendor. For example, partners and customers have difficulty determining which vendor is accountable for solving virtualization glitches: the vendor of the Linux machine running on a host or the server software vendor?

"The pact merely symbolizes the importance of virtualization. Certainly, Microsoft wants to own the management and control of [virtualized environments] since the desktop and majority of applications continue to operate best on the Windows platform," said Ken Winell, CEO of ExpertCollab, a Microsoft partner in Florham Park, N.J.

Microsoft heard the mandate from its corporate customers: provide better interoperability with Linux or lose Enterprise Agreement renewals and Software Assurance contracts in the future, some sources said. As part of the deal, Microsoft's own sales force is charged with distributing 70,000 coupons for SUSE Linux subscriptions annually and already has paid Novell $240 million upfront for those contracts.

The deal with Novell, Waltham, Mass., not only took the heat off Microsoft, but also will make life easier for Windows partners seeking to deploy Linux virtual machines on Windows servers and other Linux server and desktop solutions. In the past, Microsoft, Redmond, Wash., has attacked Linux and discouraged its partners from deploying Linux servers.

For their part, Novell partners say Microsoft's blessing will persuade many legacy NetWare customers to migrate to SUSE Linux and entice the massive installed base of Windows customers to select SUSE Linux over Red Hat.

As Microsoft formally acknowledges increasing use of Linux in its customer base, Novell is hopeful it can lure back thousands of former partners that defected to Microsoft's program amid declining sales of NetWare, said Ladd Timpson, global director of channel and partner marketing at Novell.

That just may happen, partners say. "If you're selling Linux, this is a big boost," said Tom Derosier, co-owner of CPU Guys, a VAR in Hanson, Mass. "This makes Linux more attractive to customers of all sizes. This gives us a reason to go out and look at selling and supporting SUSE Linux."

Some questioned the level of support that Microsoft will offer for Linux workloads. David Kaefer, general manager of IP licensing at Microsoft, said it is in the company's strategic interest to ensure that Windows is seen as a virtualization-friendly platform, and it is serious about ensuring that customers get support for running SUSE Linux workloads on Windows.

To help deliver support to customers and partners, Technical Support Alliance Network (TSA.Net), Overland Park, Kan., will coordinate and manage the joint support models and will serve as a broker to handle the handoffs, Kaefer said.

Microsoft and Novell each have assigned partner managers to collaborate and jointly communicate the benefits of the pact to solution providers in the field. Novell is considering a requirement in its PartnerNet 2007 program that would require Linux partners seeking specialist certification to gain expertise on interoperability, Timpson said.

The deal is viewed by some as bad news for Red Hat and VMware, which countered the Microsoft-Novell alliance last week with an expanded partnership of their own that promises better interoperability between Red Hat Linux and VMware's virtualization platforms.

Whether Microsoft's clout steers customers and partners to Novell SUSE Linux and Microsoft's virtualization hypervisor remains to be seen. Regardless, better interoperability should benefit all partners making a bet on lucrative virtualization technology and Linux deployments, one partner said.

"In the future, in Microsoft environments where the customer is virtualizing using Microsoft applications on top of Microsoft Virtual Server or in the longer term with Linux-Xen, then those customers probably will use SUSE and Microsoft products," said Ken Mclaurin, senior marketing manager of open source and virtualization at Akibia, a solution provider in Westborough, Mass. "For customers who are currently using VMware and/or Red Hat's operating system with applications that require a more unified stack, then those customers will probably use VMware and Red Hat."

With virtualization comes new management complexities partners must resolve. Novell's implementation of the WS-Federation protocolpromised as part of the pactshould help IT administrators and service partners set up a back-end infrastructure that authenticates and authorizes Windows and Linux users seamlessly on the same network as well as offers cross-authentication. This, for example, will allow customers to more easily push group policies from Microsoft Active Directory to Novell eDirectory.

Other ripple effects of the multifaceted deal likely will include an increase in pre-installs of SUSE Linux on custom systems, servers and desktops. One system builder that recently signed up to preload SUSE Linux Desktop on his systems said it will accelerate his cross-platform Linux business. And he said he hopes the deal spurs Adobe Systems and Intuit to bring out native Linux versions of their leading desktop applications.

"The partnership is a great win for the Linux community, [and] more importantly SUSE Linux, and it will help add some validity to Linux for those businesses that were leery," said Nathan Rockhold, president of R Cubed Technologies, Galesburg, Ill. "It will be a huge advantage to any system builder that supports a mixed-platform office with Linux, Unix and Windows. Previously, some users would have multiple machines or would have to dual-boot to accomplish different job tasks."

The shortest-term benefit for partners is availability of Office file-format translators due in the first half of 2007, Microsoft's Kaefer said.

"It's the easiest technology to create a solution for," said Kaefer, noting that Microsoft and Novell are working on ODF-to-OXML translators that extend interoperability beyond just documents.

Naysayers say the vendors' promises exist only on paper and may not materialize into real benefits for partners. One open-source consulting firm advises customers to look to open-source specialists to implement SUSE Linux.

"This is primarily an agreement about patents between Novell and Microsoft and doesn't represent a real change in strategy for either company," said Dave Gynn, infrastructure practice manager at Optaros, Cambridge, Mass. "We would still recommend that our customers look to a Linux-knowledgeable partner before Microsoft for advice on Linux strategy. And Microsoft's approach of maintaining a cloud of uncertainty around Linux hasn't changed."

Another partner sees the deal as a possible prelude to a merger between two OS archrivals that have battled for years but now face a common enemy.

"Novell and Microsoft and Apple are pulling together closely to protect themselves against what [Oracle CEO Larry] Ellison might be doing with Red Hat. Ellison could do a hostile takeover or worseforce Red Hat out of business," said Gregg Rosenberg, founder and CTO of RICIS, a Tinley Park, Ill., solution provider doing work on open-source mail systems. "There are a couple of possibilitiesit may be that Novell licenses technology to Microsoft or Microsoft attempts to acquire Novell, both of which are realistic at this point, and neither of which I like."

BARBARA DARROW and STEVEN BURKE contributed to this story.