The Executive Computer
Newest Netware Challenges Customers -- and Its Creator
By Peter H. Lewis
The New York Times
March 28, 1993
NOVELL INC.'s long-awaited Netware 4.0 operating system software, which will be available in a few days, is an ambitious attempt to keep up with its customers as they move to bigger and broader networks.
It is also an essential element of Novell's efforts to ward off the Microsoft Corporation's forthcoming Windows NT operating system, which is expected to be introduced later this spring.
Netware and Windows NT, along with other network operating systems like Vines, from Banyan Systems Inc., are all trying to become the software standard for harnessing and orchestrating the PC-based networks throughout a company.
These networks will require controlling software that goes far beyond the abilities of earlier Netware versions, which were pushed to the limit in companies with big offices, several buildings on a campus, or branches in different cities.
Novell's earlier Netware products have become the de facto standard for allowing office PC's to share data files and peripherals, such as printers. Novell owns an estimated 65 percent of the local area network market and is used on millions of PC's.
Netware 4.0 is "the product that will either make or break Novell as an enterprise-wide distributed systems provider," said Jamie Lewis, vice president of the Burton Group, a research firm in Salt Lake City that specializes in networking issues.
Typical Netware installations connect no more than 250 PC's to a powerful central computer that acts as a file server. Netware 4.0 promises to extend that scopeto encompass multiple servers and thousands of users, each connected to the others.
People who saw Novell's demonstration of Netware 4.0 in Washington earlier this month were awed when a single Compaq Systempro server loaded with a prototype version of Netware 4.0 harnessed 1,000 PC's. Netware then converted all 1,000 PC nodes into individual servers, an even more impressive technical feat.
"Frankly, I think a lot of the attendees didn't believe what they were seeing," said Cheryl C. Currid, president of Currid & Company, a consulting firm in Houston.
For Ms. Currid, though, seeing is believing. The idea that networks of small, inexpensive personal computers can replace mainframe and minicomputers suddenly seems more plausible, she said.
One advantage of having a giant central computer rather than a network was that most of the administration of the system was focused on the one big box. If the train didn't move, it was almost always a problem that could be isolated in the locomotive.
With local area networks, in place of a locomotive there is a fleet of trucks and cars, with many engines to be tuned. "When you have distributed systems, you have distributed problems," said Mr. Lewis of the Burton Group.
Netware 4.0, he said, has a "directory structure," a new feature that makes the program easier for office workers to use and easier for network managers to administer.
Currently, a network manager with more than one local area network must administer each Netware server independently, which is a headache. That arrangement is also confusing for PC users, who have to hunt through the network to find the data they need.
"If I'm a user and want to access information on three servers, under the old model I'd have to log in to each of the three," Mr. Lewis said. "With 4.0, I log in only one time." Instead of showing the network as a collection of discrete, physical units, Netware 4.0 reorganizes the network into logical divisions.
Netware 4.0 also includes new features like data compression, which saves memory; point-and-click commands for adding and deleting network users and functions, and safeguards that keep the failure of one application from bringing down the entire network. While those safeguards are necessary, testers say, they also slow the performance of Netware 4.0 in general.
Another drawback to Netware 4.0 -- common to almost every new version of anything -- is that a corporate staff will need to spend many hours, perhaps even weeks, learning network planning, reorganization, training and troubleshooting.
To ease the transition, Novell is establishing special training courses and "education centers" for network managers. Potential customers are likely to proceed slowly, in part because of the complexity of the product, and also because Netware 4.0 is a "dot-zero" product. Smart computer people like to say that any product with a version number like 1.0, 2.0 and so on should be treated gingerly until all known bugs and glitches are ironed out. Many managers make it a practice to avoid new software until the first revised version, like 4.1, comes out.
So while many current Novell customers are likely to kick Netware 4.0's tires, few are likely to plunk down their money immediately.
"We won't know the full story on Netware 4.0's scalability, for example, until someone has implemented a 4.0-based network with hundreds of servers, supporting thousands of users, and with a directory data base that's partitioned across five time zones," Mr. Burton said. Scalability refers to the ability of the software to work on big systems of thousands of users as well as on smaller networks of a dozen or so users.
So which corporate customer will volunteer to lead the wagon train and take the arrows? Many companies acknowledge that it is inevitable that they will emigrate to this brave new world, but for now the terrain remains dangerous, filled with unknowns.
One unknown, said Tom Kucharvy, president of Summit Strategies Inc., a market strategy and consulting firm in Boston, is Novell's relationship with the Unix operating system.
"Application servers are the core of the new generation of networks, known as client/server, which distribute the application load among many users," he said. "Netware 4.0 goes further in acting as applications server, but it has nowhere near the capabilities of NT, which is why Novell acquired USL."
He was referring to Unix System Laboratories, the major force among developers of Unix, an established operating system for big networks.
"They've laid out some very rough ideas, but it's going to take another couple of months before they get to any details," Mr. Kucharvy said. "A lot deals with how successful Novell can be in convincing users that a two-operating-system approach, Netware and Unix, is better than a one-operating-system approach, NT. Does it really want to establish Unix as co-equal with Windows NT?"
The final component of Netware 4.0's prospects for success is cultural.
"Netware in many ways defined what I call PC anarchy," Mr. Lewis said. "It was one of the primary products that allowed departments and work groups within a company to network themselves outside of the centralized control. It was implemented from the ground up.
"The philosophy of a directory-based product like Netware 4.0 is top down. It requires a tremendous amount of planning and coordination and consensus on how we're going to organize things, and that's exactly counter to the type of culture that made Netware a success."
If the same departments that installed earlier Netware versions decide to shift to version 4.0, then a top-down product will be installed in ground-up fashion, potentially sabotaging the move to true enterprise networking.
So Novell is faced with three formidable tasks: nailing down the complex technical issues with a bug-free release, competing with mighty Microsoft and re-educating its loyal customers on a new way to use its products.