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Novell's OpenSuSE commitment is tested

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More than ever, these are testing times for Novell's Linux culture, and its relations with the community.

The recession hit sales of Novell's SuSE Linux during its first quarter, according to chief executive Ron Hovsepian. Novell's CEO blamed over reliance on direct sales.

As some have written, the benefits of the 2006 Microsoft reseller agreement that cost Novell so much good will in the community have clearly played out.

Sources close to Novell have told us those sales went well, and coupons were redeemed - Microsoft agreed in 2006 to distribute 70,000 SuSE Linux certificates. The problem, as we saw at the time, was really big customer deals failed to drop and Novell overly relied on Microsoft rather than using the breathing space it secured in the deal to stand on its own two legs.

That was relatively understandable, given Microsoft is far larger than Novell and has a broader sales operation.

So to what does Novell turn now? According to Hovesepian, focus on partners and being "aggressive" on pricing.

Translated that means Novell's going to work on more bundles and cut prices. Neither will help Novell's profits in the short term, although - if successful - they could help market share growth.

If that is the case, then hopefully - for Novell's sake - it could be in a position to make money from the increased market share once the economy recovers.

Additionally, Novell's got SuSE Linux Enterprise 11 to look forward to later this year, which should help boost the business through a round of upgrades, recession or no recession.

That SuSE Linux engine, though, is going through a testing time.

It's emerged that paid Novell employees who were involved in the OpenSuSE community are among those that are getting laid off by the company. These layoffs were part of the original round of layoffs, a Novell spokesman told The Reg.

It's not clear who exactly has gone - Novell won't identify specific employees of groups. It could be anybody from engineers and experts to the kinds of marketing and community liaison types that Sun Microsystems let go from its Open Solaris organization as part of its own massive layoffs.

If Novell is genuine in its Linux ambitions, it will have cut the marketing and liaison types first. This would make sense, given there was a flowering of such roles at a range of tech companies looking for love through engagement in the open-source community during the bubble years. We've seen this at Microsoft, IBM, and CA in addition to Sun - to name just a handful.

The worry would be if Novell has begun letting the experts and engineers go, as these are the people who build and test code, absorb technical feedback from the community on OpenSuSE and - ultimately - SuSE Linux and whose existence really gives a company status in the open-source community. It's these types of people that give the community the impression the company wants their feedback and is interested in working with them.

When word of the OpenSuSE cuts leaked, community members were already reacting negatively, saying you could see where Novell's priorities lay.

Novell is a company with 4,000 employees and the cuts it's made sound like a fraction of that head count, especially in the OpenSuSE organization.

If this is the start of a trend, then - based on those early reactions - Novell needs to be careful it doesn't sever the kinds of technical ties and back channels that have helped build SuSE Linux - the Linux disro Hovesepian is now counting on to sell at a discount. ®

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