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06 June 2011, 16:50

Novell's open source legacy – wake up, little SUSE

by Richard Hillesley

Novell's unrequited romance with Linux and free software is over. Having completed its $2.2 billion takeover, Attachmate is dividing the spoils. Novell and its legacy networking business will survive in Utah. NetIQ will inherit Novell's identity and security management solutions, and SUSE has been given autonomy and control of Novell's open source projects from its base in Nuremberg.

Mono has been cast adrift, and the worst aspects of Novell's attempt to sell off a large part of its patent portfolio to a consortium led by Microsoft have been scuppered by the US Department of Justice and the German Federal Cartel Office. But there are still questions left to answer.

SUSE is the only mainstream Linux company to have been owned by a proprietary software company – if we exclude the short history of Corel Linux – and the awkwardness has shown.

Novell's relationship with the open source community was beset with mis-steps and misunderstandings, mistakes and missed opportunities. In some cases wrong decisions were made for "business" reasons, such as the patent indemnification deal with Microsoft. On other occasions the tail was allowed to wag the dog and Mono gained a significance it should never have had.

Mono was an interoperability tool, a means of making it easier to migrate applications from Windows to Linux, or a route by which commercial .NET developers could jump from Windows to Linux without leaving their comfort zone – but it was allowed to be trailed as "an upgrade on a development platform" for Linux and GNOME, and became a thorn in the side of Novell's relationship with the wider community.

Novell was the good guy in the SCO saga, backed its open source developers and made numerous contributions to free software projects – but it is fated not to be remembered for its triumphs or good deeds which have been lost in the dust of indemnifications, patent sales, and arguments about Microsoft or Mono.

Under the volcano

Appropriately, Novell's demise as an open source company coincided with the culmination of SCO's legal battle with IBM and the Linux community, in which Novell was a principal player. Novell's relationship with Linux, and its entanglements with SCO and its antecedents, go back a surprisingly long way, and the story of Novell's attachment to open source neatly coincides with the turbulent life and death of SCO.

As early as 1993 Novell was financing a Linux skunkworks project, which first had the name 'Expose' and later 'Corsair'. The skunkworks project was led by Bryan Sparks and Ransom Love, but was abandoned when Ray Noorda, the founder of Novell, left the company.

The 'Corsair' project was floated off as Caldera Inc. in October 1994. Caldera was financed by the Canopy Group, owned by Noorda, and led by Sparks – and later became the centrepiece of SCO. Sparks' role as CEO set a precedent. Each of SCO/Caldera's CEOs and many of SCO/Caldera's executives were ex-employees of Novell, including Darl McBride, the prime instigator of SCO's "Intellectual Property" siege on the computing industry.

Caldera had a successful IPO in January 2000, just before the dotcom bubble burst, and was valued at $1.1 billion, which allowed Caldera to buy the UNIX business of the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) on 2 August 2000 – an investment that was intended to open SCO's business channels to Caldera's Linux offerings.

I own the stars

As it transpired, the management of the newly named SCO Group, led by Darl McBride, saw its greatest assets not in its disappearing distribution channels, but in its "ownership" of UNIX.

Novell paid AT&T $350 million for the rights to UNIX in 1992, and had sold some rights on to SCO in 1995 for $60 million. When the SCO Group declared war on IBM and the Linux community in 2003, SCO's "ownership" of UNIX, inherited from Novell, (and the baseless claim that there was filched code in the Linux kernel) formed the basis of its legal action.

Almost immediately there was an unexpected and impassioned intervention on IBM's behalf from Novell's then CEO, Jack Messman. Messman challenged SCO's assertion that it owned the copyrights and patents to UNIX System V, pointing out that "the asset purchase agreement entered into between Novell and SCO in 1995 did not transfer these rights to SCO", and demanded that SCO produce "facts to back up its assertion that certain UNIX System V code has been copied into Linux", which it never has.

The case had no merit and was remarkable mostly for SCO's persistence in coming back for more. Novell led the fight, and proved unequivocally that SCO had no rights to the UNIX System V copyrights, and even less grounds for questioning the originality, authenticity, authorship, identity and parentage of the Linux kernel.

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