Novel used its BrainShare 2003 user conference in Salt Lake City, to announce that NetWare 7 will be a set of services sitting on top of both the NetWare and Linux kernels.

NetWare 7 is due to succeed NetWare 6.5, which entered public beta-testing this week.

"We are not dropping NetWare; we are adding Linux," maintained Jack Messman, Novell's chairman and CEO, in a keynote speech to BrainShare attendees. "This is not a departure from NetWare. We will not abandon you, and you need not abandon us."

That's just what many NetWare users wanted to hear.

"The way they're migrating the operating system - going to a modular format - makes a lot of sense," said Michael Gardner, a senior systems engineer at Munder Capital Management, a financial services firm in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. NetWare "has always stood there as one of the more stable operating systems; it just wasn't as usable. Now they're making it more usable with Linux." Gardner acknowledged that his company, a steadfast Novell user, had some concerns about NetWare's future.

Although there is no official ship date for NetWare 7, Messman said Novell will follow its standard timeline of approximately 18 months between NetWare releases.

Messman said users who are paying maintenance fees will have the option to eventually migrate from the NetWare kernel to Linux. "It's a good migration path for NetWare users who were worried about where we were going with NetWare," he said.

Ensuring that file, print, storage, directory, Web development, resource management and other NetWare services will be available for the long haul "gives customers comfort," Messman added.

"It sounds like a great idea," said Victor Ponelis, a NetWare technologist at the University of Wisconsin. "For my part, there's no concern that NetWare is going to go away. We will simply adapt as the industry adapts." If the NetWare kernel goes away, he added, "the services will be running on something else."

Novell Vice Chairman Chris Stone claimed the decision to offer the Linux migration path was driven by users. "They were looking for an open door," Stone said. "We all know that NetWare's revenue has been dipping over the years. So what do you do? You take the services and you make them the value."

Stone and Messman both contended that for NetWare users, having the choice to migrate to Linux will be more important than actually exercising it. "I think once they get that option, they'll choose not to do it," Messman said. "They just need to know they can."

But some BrainShare attendees said that they had no intention of migrating from NetWare.

"Our core processing is all done on NetWare, and that's not going to change in the foreseeable future," said Ken Forgie, assistant vice president and IT manager at Asheville Savings Bank in North Carolina. "They're a stable enough company where we've never really had those doubts."