To migrate or not to migrate? That is the question facing NetWare administrators, as IT departments begin planning their first major upgrades since overhauling their systems for Y2K. The message from Novell is clear: Linux is the future, with NetWare likely to be relegated to legacy status.

So, what does that mean for the estimated 90 million users and 4 million servers worldwide that rely on Novell’s NetWare operating system?

“The short answer for what it means to the NetWare base is absolutely nothing if they want it to mean absolutely nothing,” says Novell CTO Alan Nugent. “And it can mean a lot to them if they want it to.”

Nugent insists that Novell will continue to support NetWare customers as long as it has customers to support, citing the platform’s continued support for new hardware such as SATA drives and blade servers.

But for Novell, part of the business case for open source involves minimising direct investment in development. For example, Novell plans to migrate its J2EE application server customers from its own exteNd product to the open source JBoss. Given this strategy, the idea that Novell would pour significant resources into maintaining NetWare seems far-fetched.

“They have a huge installed base, and I’ve got to tell you, I think NetWare is very cool,” says Gary Hein, vice president of application platform strategies at Burton Group. “There are a lot of things in NetWare that you still can’t do on Windows or Linux. But at the end of the day, it’s not about how cool technology is. I think the writing is on the wall and NetWare is going to be in continued decline.”

If NetWare is perceived as a dead end, the challenge facing Novell is to convince customers who do decide to migrate that Linux is the best choice. If Novell fails, it stands to lose many of those customers to the Windows platform.

But winning customers over to Linux is likely to be a tough haul. Many, particularly those in vertical industries, doubt that Linux can meet their needs, according to Laura DiDio, an analyst at The Yankee Group.

“Time and time again, particularly in health care and legal [industries], people are saying, ‘Forget it. We will never go to Linux because our core, mission-critical health-care applications are not supported on Linux,’ ” DiDio explains.

Unless Novell can remedy its Achilles’ heel - a lack of developer support - the decision to go with a Linux or NetWare kernel may be moot.