Monday's announcement by Novell of its $210m acquisition of SUSE, the German Linux house, begs a huge number of questions. Novell is betting the farm on migrating NetWare users to Linux - can it succeed? Can Novell deliver the new Linux-based products it promises? And, intriguingly, could we even be seeing the early stages of a stealthy return by Novell into the desktop market?

The SUSE acquisition completes Novell's basic technology portfolio in the context of its conversion to the Linux cause over recent months. It could add impetus to NT users tempted by Linux's functionality and low cost base but who couldn't make the leap because of the lack of a safety net.

Strategic acquisition
Brian Green, EMEA product marketing manager, has no doubt that buying SUSE is a strategic acquisition for the Utah-based company. "Our customer councils, containing both Novell and non-Novell users, were looking at Linux but were inhibited by issues such as a lack of support, training and services. Customers want solutions and components on Linux and the SUSE acquisition solves the problem for them. We've had a very positive response." He added that Novell could bring SUSE global reach while exploiting the technology "that allows them to build a common kernel across different platforms." As chairman and CEO Jack Messman said, "With this acquisition, Novell will be the only billion-dollar software company with a Linux distribution and a worldwide ecosystem around it. A worldwide technical staff of over 600 has been trained to support Linux. The acquisition of SUSE Linux completes our technology stack from the desktop to the server."

Exchange opportunity
One of the main opportunities Novell sees opening up is the reluctance of users to spend large amounts upgrading Windows NT-based Exchange 5.5 servers, which support the almost ubiquitous Outlook personal productivity application. Yet there's pressure from Microsoft to do so, as the latest version of Exchange won't run on NT, an OS for which Microsoft has already hinted it will soon withdraw support.

Novell's response will be to develop a version of its Exchange competitor GroupWise that can displace Exchange at the back end while Outlook clients remain in place. Green commented that "porting GroupWise to Linux will open up the back-end because it avoids the need for mass scale upgrading of Windows." Staff availability and familiarity, always an issue for complex installations, should improve too, as a result of Novell's Linux training programme.

New Linux applications
Green added that Novell has, as a consequence of strong positive feedback generated by its Linux conversion, brought forward the development of new Linux Nterprise suite products, such as Web services and J2EE.

Novell's vision is that all its services will eventually run on both NetWare and Linux and will, from both a functionality and a look and feel point of view, be the same even though the underlying code would be different. But it's the combination of the Ximian and SUSE acquisitions that, for Novell, is critical. According to Green, Ximian's Red Carpet application brings Linux-based desktop management, which combined with ZenWorks, allows Novell to build a single application to manage all systems.

Novell on the desktop
"It's also brought us the Gnome GUI, which improves interoperability and usability on the desktop," added Green. It's only a small step from that to the development of desktop-based applications and services.

Novell's previous desktop OS forays have not met with huge success however. "We're not saying you can replace Windows XP with a Linux desktop made of components from SUSE and Ximian," said Green, agreeing that Linux was not yet ready for mass deployment. "There's a lack of applications for clients today. But we have retail customers whose staff need only an email client, a word processor and a browser for back end access. Linux can do all that. But right now we won't be developing a general purpose desktop."

Instead, Novell is encouraging open source developers. Green added that users of task-specific applications such as SAP and Peoplesoft still need a desktop and that the Linux community could supply that. As an example, he cited Novell's active involvement in the Mono project, an effort to create an open source implementation of Microsoft's .NET framework. "We're assisting that through open source and addressing the issue of a lack of [Linux] applications," said Green.

Marketing effort
The question for many though will be whether Novell can deliver. The company has been slated in the past for its failure to convince the market of the worth of its products, despite having some very good ones. Green reckoned that "Trying to get market attention has been difficult. This move opens up new opportunities for us - we have much closer relationships with HP and will be doing joint marketing across EMEA. As a result of the [$50m] IBM investment, we also have a partnership with IBM. IBM will be going to market with Novell Nterprise services products. Also, Novell will be porting GroupWise to run on Z Series mainframes."

Response to Novell's move has been positive. If Novell can deliver on its promises, the sniff of opposition to the Microsoft dominance of server, and maybe even the desktop, will be heady for traditional Microsoft-bashers. Perhaps, Novell can make money out of it too, given that not all of it will be open source. More realistically, for IT managers who just need to make projects work on ever-tighter budgets, Novell does present a highly plausible alternative.

Plans are good and Novell's make sense. If Novell really does deliver, it might even become a tempting acquisition target for IBM. But execution, as ever, is the key.