Novell's SuSE acquisition late last year brings new impetus to the Linux market, with the Utah-based company now widely seen as a key foil for Red Hat. And to many, it helps add validation to the burgeoning enterprise thrust of the OS. So Novell's European technical director Steve Gaines explains how the organisation, once the networking industry's colossus, sees the future.

Given the changes in direction that Novell has undertaken in the last year, what is Novell's strategy today?
You could sum it up in two words: Linux and identity. We're fully committed to Linux - as of course is IBM, who invested $50 million in us last year. You can see that from our acquisition of SuSE and Ximian last year. We're also pursuing the idea of creating products around the Nsure platform, that's our identity management products. So the combination of our outstanding product portfolio and support, consultancy and services means we can provide real solutions to our customers' problems - that's our strategy.

What do you think about the idea of UnitedLinux? Isn't that what you need to take on Microsoft?
We pulled out of that because it's run its course. We'll continue to honour our commitments to UnitedLinux 1.0 and importantly maintain our relationship with Connectiva and TurboLinux but it's not the right way to go now. Also, some people saw it as a repeat of Novell's head-to-head with Microsoft in the 1990s. Instead I see the enterprise Linux market really being about just two main players and that's more healthy than what you could call a virtual monopoly. It gives customers something to beat us up with. And we're not alone - we've got the whole open source community with us.

Doesn't Novell find straddling the open source and proprietary software markets uncomfortable?
Not really. We can still add value by developing new products and in fact we've also joined Eclipse, which is an initiative from the open source community, with the idea of creating interoperable open source products. IBM and Red Hat are in there too. I'd like to think we have a symbiotic relationship with the Open Source community - reactions so far seem to support this.

Isn't the indemnification scheme [against SCO] a publicity stunt?
No, customers could be in real danger of being sued by SCO. They've threatened to charge customers $750 for licences for what they say is their code. Our customers want protection from copyright claims, including but not limited to the current situation with SCO, and we're providing that. It's not quite an open chequebook either - we limit it to $1.5 million per customer. We've every intention of defending our rights and we're in good company with others in the industry.

When will NetWare die?
It'll be there as long as people want it - it's still evolving. OK, the user base isn't expanding but those who use it, love it. It's stable, robust and fast - even faster than Linux - and there are loads of applications out there for it. Remember that NetWare is a combination of a kernel and services. We are continuing to maintain and improve the NetWare kernel but we are also making the services available on a Linux kernel starting with our release of Nterprise Linux services last year. We've also wrapped an open source shell around it so it now supports Apache, for example, which makes it attractive to open source developers. We'll also have GroupWise running on Linux by the end of this year and NetWare services will be on Linux by the end of 2004. I couldn't see it disappearing before about 2010 so our customers can migrate as and when they wish to do so.

Will there ever be a desktop Linux? If so, what will Novell's involvement be?
We're very keen on this, which is why we bought the Ximian desktop for Linux. I run it as my daily system on a laptop - it's ideal for anyone who needs a productivity suite and it's all you need, though, clearly there are those who need to run specialised applications such as AutoCAD. The number of ISV's supporting Linux is growing rapidly so the situation will change dramatically in the next year or two.

Is there any technical reason for IT managers to choose open source - or is it just fashion?
It's like having lots of choices and, if something needs fixing, there will be someone out there who can fix it. Open source means choice and diversity, and that's a good thing. Independent tests have shown that Linux is more robust, faster for a given hardware and inherently more secure than certain other OSes. Add to that the lower costs and IT managers have a compelling reason to look hard at Linux. They have, until recently, been reticent to do this. We're removing the barriers, of which one of the most important was around support and management. How do you manage thousands of Linux servers and desktops? Our combined RedCarpet and Zen technology removes that headache.

You've lots of money in the bank. Will we see any more acquisitions?
We've got about half a billion dollars in the bank but we're pretty rounded out now, with a new OS kernel and desktop, lots of tools and a clear direction in which we want to take the company. Remember, our customers run a diverse set of platforms with increasingly more and more Linux. So as far as we're concerned, the future is Linux.