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OPINION: Novell Buys Unix, Again

Remember the headlines from just more than 10 years ago about Novell buying Unix Systems Labs (USL) from AT&T for $270 million worth of stock? That was back in the days before Linus got started on Linux and when the majority of network file servers were running Netware. In 1993, DOS was still a big deal. Graphical interfaces were still only found on Macintoshes. IBM was still selling plenty of mainframes, and it still had high hopes for OS/2 and TopView.

Ten years ago, Unix was mostly a techie curiosity, being run sub-rosa by IT managers who were so early to the market that it was more of a cult following than an operating system. Ten years ago, directory services was a novel idea and relatively unknown. Indeed, the concept was so new that Microsoft spent a lot of time convincing people that they didn't need it and should wait until their product was good enough for public consumption. (One could argue that we are still waiting, and that Novell's product is still far better than Microsoft's Active Directory.)

Novell seemingly has a second chance, with the recent announcement that they are buying SuSE Linux for some $210 million -- in cash this time, with help from IBM. Big Blue will be buying $50 million of Novell's stock. Is this dj vu all over again? Hard to say. The world is a different place. Linux is mainstream, cheaper and more potent than ever. The Internet made TCP/IP the protocol of choice (even Netware runs over it nowadays), and a good chunk of the world's Web servers run on Linux.

I find the whole situation very ironic. The main thorn in the side of Linux these days is SCO, which has its roots in the Canopy Group, a private venture capital firm that grew from the house that Ray Noorda built. If you recall, Noorda was the long-time CEO and chairman of Novell in the 1980s and early 1990s. Noorda was behind the first effort to buy USL from AT&T back in 1993. SCO's lawsuits on intellectual property theft stem back to the early years when Novell owned USL and are based on documents from the Noorda archives.

SuSE is a strong contender, as far as commercial Linux distributions go. And Novell is talking the open systems talk these days: showing how it can assemble a full solution from desktop to server, and tie those solutions closer together with the companies acquired during the last few years, including Silverstream/eXtend application servers, Nterprise Linux servers and Ximian desktop Linux software.

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