R.I.P. Novell

mimi-in-tree-1I was planning to skip my blog entries during the holidays, but then I picked up SD Times and read about Attachmate and Microsoft carving up the Christmas turkey that was Novell. Novell is (was) my favorite technology company so I decided to tell you why, not so much a blog entry as a Christmas story without the BB Gun.

I started working with ANI in 1986 as they were struggling to build a network of complex application systems which were to be delivered over a Local Area Network. I was a consultant then, and a previous consultant had told them that LANs and PCs were not ready for that task. I thought they were. I knew it would be a difficult job at first, but the challenges were all going to be capacity related (disk size, CPU speed, network speed, printer speed). I knew (well Moore’s Law said) that technology would eclipse their needs in a matter of years. The key, (said the consultant) would be picking the right technologies. ANI placed their chips on Red and spun the wheel. Then, the unthinkable happened; the Director of Information Services quit, and I was offered the opportunity to deliver on my advice.
During the late 80’s and early 90’s, we developed systems, bought third-party software and expanded our Novell NetWare network to more and more desktops. When Novell released Netware v3.1, the eclipse had begun. You can read SD Times and elsewhere about Novell’s failure to turn with the current of technology, but in my mind, they failed because NetWare 3.1 was so good, we didn’t need the next version. I remember listening to Drew Major (Novell co-Founder & Chief Scientist) speak at Novell’s developer conference BrainShare, when he described the then upcoming release of a sub-allocation model. NetWare was famous for their (Drew’s) ‘Elevator Seeking’ algorithm/process that organized disk operations for optimal speed. Major was talking about how “there are a few cycles left over each time we build the elevator” and how he was using that extra time to allow NetWare to use the bits of wasted space at the end of storage blocks. This was during a time when disk sizes were doubling so fast that you were swapping hard drives in your machines on a near regular basis. I remember thinking “we don’t need that”. CPU’s were now fast enough, disks were big enough, PCs were cheap enough and HP had introduced 15 page-per-minute LAN-based laser printers – the battle was over.
Years later, at the insistence of Oracle, we purchased our first Windows NT server (Oracle’s NetWare based database was a buggy minefield). Side-by-side with Our NetWare boxes, we started serving up data from Microsoft. Two weeks into that experience, database access slowed to a slug-like crawl. Not knowing NT very well yet, I called our VAR who suggested rebooting the server to recover from memory loss. 14 days into service, the NT box had junk sitting in most of its meager amount of RAM. Meanwhile, the NetWare server sitting next to it had been serving up files and queuing and delivering print jobs for 435 days! The promise of an operating system than could deliver multiple services effectively from a GUI driven OS had been broken in less than a month. Over 12 years later, that promise remains largely broken – we still typically ask a Windows Server to do one thing.
Along our winding path from a network of peak performing hot rods to a garage full of minivan servers, we have succeeded in meeting and exceeding ANI’s requirements. Thanks to the truth behind Moore’s Law, we can now do things like create a virtual SharePoint server in order to test a new product or a new concept. Vendors have come and gone; noble and professional IBM replaced Oracle when our arrogant sales rep tried to bully us into a deal we didn’t like. The consistent quality delivered by HP led them to a dominant position in our racks and on our desktops, alongside Xerox printers, Lenovo laptops and Cisco switches. Microsoft, well Microsoft does everything well enough that we can now enjoy the benefits of a contiguous product line from desktop applications to the phone in our lobby. All of these products make up a network of working nodes and streaming services that runs as well as most railroads. We tolerate the upgrades, the down time and the continuing occasional need to reboot servers for various reasons, but it’s OK, we no longer have a point to prove. But back in the day, back when nobody believed we could run this business on a LAN, Novell NetWare delivered when no other product could.