Now and Zen
Over the past few weeks, there's been one helluva racket made over NetWare 5 and the features it provides. Let's see, there's support for IP as a transport, a brand new file system, server-side Java, and a handful of other new features that promise to make the platform more useful to the NetWare faithful. These are all compelling features, each of which should prove extremely useful to Novell's customers, and which have rightly received high praise from the press and user community alike.
But to me, the most interesting thing about NetWare 5 is not the new stuff, but rather the old stuff that's no longer there, and the fundamental shift in strategy that the change in features represents. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that NetWare 5 signifies a major redefinition for Novell the company, signifying its egress from the general NOS market, and the beginnings of its transformation into a company whose business is based entirely upon directory services.
This is a pretty radical statement, but one that's supported by NetWare 5 directly. For example, NetWare 5 no longer offers much of the basic connectivity that has long been the hallmark of NetWare the NOS. Instead, the file and print services that come with NetWare 5 are really only useful for Windows clients running Novell's NCP services. Rather than extending the basic connectivity found in earlier releases, NetWare 5 seems to focus more on the higher level, more abstract features that NDS provides.
The King is Dead
As it stands today, NetWare 5 is the least-connected NOS on the market. NetWare 5 does not ship with an AFP or ATPS server, nor does it ship with an IPX-aware Macintosh client, meaning there is absolutely no support for Macintosh users on a NetWare 5 network. Period. Furthermore, Mac support isn't even available from Novell as an option any longer, and the company has sold off all of their Macintosh-related development to Prosoft Engineering, who will be doing all the subsequent development in this area and selling the work as extra-cost add-ons to the people who really need it.
Nor does NetWare 5 offer any support for SMB clients. While Novell used to offer a set of Samba services for NetWare through the Novell Consulting Services' integration toolkit, all work on this product has ceased. Trying to download the SMB NLMs and tools from the NCS web site results in a frigid "this page has been removed". Although this was never really a "formal" product (unfortunately), it was at least available, but isn't any longer.
Even the IP-specific services like the FTP, LPD and NIS servers have been shuffled off to a secondary package on the NetWare 5 CD-ROM, requiring that you install and integrate these components after-the-fact, rather than getting them as part of the basic installation procedure.
The following table shows a quick comparison of the basic connectivity options provided by some of the NOS platforms on the market.
|NetWare 5.0||IntranetWare||NT Server 4.0||Linux|
Whereas before IntranetWare and Windows NT Server 4.0 were tied for basic connectivity, NetWare 5.0 has actually fallen in rank, losing more connectivity features than it has gained. As a NOS, it is actually harder to justify the use of NetWare 5 than it was to do so with IntranetWare.
As should also be readily-visible, even though NT Server 4.0 is now a better-connected NOS than NetWare, it is not the best NOS on the market. Linux wins this battle hands-down, with more connectivity options than any other operating system on the market today (the two footnotes are being worked on). Furthermore, what this chart doesn't show is the richness of the Linux implementations in comparison to the other platforms, with better management and integration than the other offerings as well.
Long Live the King
During his keynote speech at Novell's CIO conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, Eric Schmidt made a telling comment about how networks have evolved from providing basic connectivity to a model where they now provide identity and relationship management. In this model, platforms like NetWare 5 aren't so much useful for providing basic file and print services, but rather they are best used as platforms for managing the more abstract information about the users of those resources and the relationships between them.
Of course, these management services are provided through directories such as Novell's own NDS. So, perhaps NetWare 5's best use is not as a file- and print-server, but rather as a platform for managing the relationship between the users and the network resources. In fact, Novell gave a really good demonstration of the power of NDS for just this purpose, showing how it could act as a repository for end-user certificates, or automating application distribution with Novell's Z.E.N.Works product, and so forth.
Truth be told, NDS is a fine directory service, and it is probably still the best directory you can get for PC-centric networks today. A couple of years ago, I chose NDS as the best directory service for a feature in Network Computing, and I would have to do the same today. When it comes to viewing and managing the resources on a typical PC network (including stuff like printers and whatnot), NDS cannot be beat, and it doesn't appear that any other directory will match it anytime soon.
More important, although NDS is available for a couple of other platforms (like Linux, heh), NetWare 5 is the best platform for running a complex NDS tree, simply because most NDS services require NLMs on the server in order to work. So if Novell is able to really make a play out of NDS, then sales of NetWare shouldn't fall all that far, even though it's no longer the most-connected NOS.
But NDS has a looooong way to go before it's capable of providing enterprise-class directory services across the board. You still can't create an ACL in one tree for users in another, severely restricting its usage in cross-organizational deployments (DCE's CDS is still the best choice for this today). Furthermore, Novell has to do a lot of work to convince developers to start writing to NDS instead of whatever directory services are already provided with whatever NOS they already have deployed. Once Microsoft puts the APIs for Active Directory into the C compiler, this will just get harder (doesn't anybody else remember why VIM lost to MAPI?).
Of course, all of this is just speculation on my part. Novell officials have denied my assertion that they were looking to get out of the NOS space (no surprise there), but I think the evidence speaks for itself. I can't think of any other reason to stop development on basic connectivity services, an area that has long defined the market. But, I could be giving them more credit than they deserve, too.