"I expect some of you are here to see me because you've never seen anybody from Novell before," Novell CEO Jack Messman quipped at the start of his keynote address at this week’s LinuxWorld show in New York.
Novell's purchase in the past year of SuSE Linux and Ximian catapulted the traditionally staid enterprise software vendor into the open-source world. That's a change most vendors and customers will face in the near future, according to Messman, who used his keynote to detail the challenges and considerations involved in that transition.
"2004 is going to be the year that Linux goes mainstream on the enterprise server, and soon thereafter, the business users -- not just the technical users -- will begin the transition to Linux-based desktops," he said. "This year, Linux will come into the core of the enterprise."
Messman divided his talk into two parts, discussing open-source technology adoption from first the customers' and then the vendors' point of view.
CIOs beginning to use Linux grapple with security issues and the unfamiliar situation of having multiple developers responsible for critical components. Accountability is their main concern, and that creates an opportunity for companies like Novell and Red Hat, Messman said. He sees Novell as selling not code but services to deliver and support that software code in a way that's comfortable for businesses.
"Customers have spent years learning how to work with proprietary vendors. They expect to be able to make one call ... and say, 'This isn't working. You sold it to us, you fix it,'" he said. "This is the number one issue on the minds of CIOs. They want support from someone they can trust. The result has to be the same for customers: One call, one throat to choke. That's all."
To reassure buyers, vendors selling open-source-based software need to do a better job explaining to customers the development processes designed to ensure the software's security, and they need to indemnify their customers against legal responsibility for IP (intellectual property) challenges, Messman said. He cited Novell's indemnification programme, introduced last week, as a model for the industry.
Messman obliquely suggested that The SCO Group's legal crusade for Linux licensing fees it claims to be owed feeds into the trepidation business executives feel as they consider open-source products. Without directly naming SCO, he criticized the effects of its actions.
"Simply because many of us question the claims being made doesn't mean IP issues aren't part of a customer's buying equation," he said. "How much faster would Linux be growing if this issue weren't out there?"
The vendor side is where adoption of open-source development models is most essential, Messman said. At Novell, changing to that model has involved fundamentally revamping the company's development approach. Programmers accustomed to working on code with a few colleagues down the hall had to learn to collaborate with hundreds of programmers scattered around the world, and the company had to overcome what Messman termed "a bad case of Not Invented Here Syndrome."
Novell has bet its future on adoption of open-source models, and it intends to help steer others in the IT industry in that direction, Messman said.
"We have gained two of the gems of the open-source community. But with that comes responsibility, and we take that responsibility very much to heart. We will contribute more to open source than we take away," he said. "I commit to you here today that we will not mess this up. SuSE Linux and Ximian simply won't let us. We acquired them, but they will lead the way."
One LinuxWorld attendee said that having Novell's CEO espousing the virtues of open-source development was the most remarkable part of Messman's presentation.
"It's probably less important what he's saying than that he's up there saying it," said Gideon Kory, a research analyst with Roth Capital Partners.
Still, Kory found himself nodding along as Messman described his view of the open-source movement and its effects.
"It sounds like slogans, but if you listen to what he's saying, he gets it. Most of the vendors and the developers don't get it. He understands the both the business and the technical value, and he can link that together and explain it in business terms," Kory said.