SUSE 11 takes off faster than 10

Novell still cool to KVM

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Novell kicked out its SUSE Linux 11 release at the end of March, so it's now time to ask how it's doing. The answer: better than SUSE Linux 10.

But still not enough to close the substantial installed base and revenue gap that exists between number one Red Hat Enterprise Linux and number two SUSE Linux Enterprise Server in the data center. Even after years of Microsoft peddling SLES to Windows shops.

According to Justin Steinman, director of marketing for Linux and open platform solutions at Novell, the downloads for SUSE Linux 11, which Novell apparently shortens to "Code 11" internally when it talks about it, were 10 per cent higher in May (the most recent month which it has put figures together for as we talked to Steinman) than they were for SUSE Linux 10 in the year-ago month.

Steinman was not at liberty to provide exact download figures - none of the big commercial Linux providers do because of the difficulty of tracking downloads through mirror sites.

The higher download figures for SUSE Linux 11 is interesting mainly because there's nothing in a Novell support contract that compels customers to choose a particular SUSE release level when they buy support. Customers can choose earlier SUSE Linux 9 or SUSE Linux 10 releases at various Service Pack levels when they buy support, and many do because they've certified their applications to run on a particular SUSE release level on specific hardware and they don't want to go through the qualification process.

Server buyers move a lot more slowly than operating system and server makers when it comes to technology shifts, and Novell knows this. So SUSE Linux 11 is just one more way that Novell demonstrates it is committed to continual improvement of its Linux distribution, even if some customers don't jump on board right away and still deploy SUSE Linux 10 SP2 in production even months after SUSE Linux 11 is out the door.

Because Linux has pretty decent scalability and stability with the 2.6 kernel, companies don't have to be on the bleeding edge as they had to be with the Linux 2.4 releases. This is precisely the way Windows shops have behaved since Windows NT 4 went through a few updates, and why so much of the base stayed on Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 even as new and better releases came out over the past decade.

"Data center managers are risk averse," says Steinman. "And many of them started the clock to wait for Service Pack 1 when Code 11 was launched back in March."

These customers are not going to be enticed to move to SUSE Linux 11 because of the additional features it has, such as integrated support for the open source Mono C# runtime environment, updated high-availability clustering, and the latest Xen 3.3 hypervisor. They will wait for SUSE Linux 11 SP1, which is slated to be released before the end of this year.

SUSE Linux 11 has a technology preview of Red Hat's alternative KVM hypervisor, but Novell is still pretty cool to it, having made big investments in Xen. "We don't see an ecosystem developing around KVM yet," says Steinman dismissively. But when Red Hat gets its freestanding version of KVM, called Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization, or RHEV for short, out of beta and into production later this year, Novell will have to make up its mind what to do. Red Hat already has, and Xen is not its future.

What seems to be more important to Novell these days is that its Linux revenues are growing and that its application base is large enough to attractive corporate customers.

In its most recent quarter ended in April, Novell's sales were down 8.5 per cent to $215.6m, but Linux maintenance and subscription sales rose by 23.4 per cent to $38.8m. Red Hat's Linux business is probably four times that size. (It is hard to say precisely, since Red Hat doesn't break out JBoss middleware and other product sales separately.) And more importantly, Red Hat's Linux business is profitable, and - by its own admission - Novell's Linux business is not.

And while Novell has been bragging that it has over 3,500 applications certified on SUSE Linux, Steinman admits that this is the summation of the applications that are certified for SUSE Linux 9, 10, and 11 combined.

Steinman said he would get back to me on the precise release-level statistics for those 3,500 applications - but after further pressing, Novell's PR agency has not yielded an answer.

Given how Unix operating systems have historically worked, getting 2,500 to 3,000 applications certified on any Unix release is a big deal, and it is hard to believe that SUSE Linux is any different. So that probably means there are 2,500 applications on SUSE Linux 9, maybe 2,000 to 1,500 on SUSE Linux 10, and maybe 500 to 1,000 on SUSE Linux 11, and when you add up all the unique applications, you get the figure of 3,500.

It's also possible that the Novell method of counting Linux apps is like the one that HP has used to come up with its 12,000-application figure for Itanium platforms - that is, by double, triple, and sometimes quadruple counting applications for each operating system that runs on the Windows, Linux, HP-UX, OpenVMS, and NonStop platforms that run on Itanium iron.

If this is the case, there might only be something like 1,500 SUSE Linux 9 applications with another 1,000 for SUSE Linux 10 and maybe 500 for SUSE Linux 11. It would be helpful if Novell would clarify this.

Steinman did want to talk a bit about clouds and Novell's place in them. And even while no one has been talking about Novell building a cloud of its own, he put the kibosh on the idea.

"We are not going to launch the Novell Cloud," Steinman says. "We are not going to be a hosting provider. Our core competency is making heterogeneous environments work together, and that is what we plan to focus on."

That's not to say that Novell does not expect its products - Linux and its PlateSpin management tools in particular - to have some play as companies build clouds. The SUSE Studio online tool for creating SUSE-based appliances is expected to get some cloud play when it goes into production, helping software vendors package up applications into virtual appliances that can be deployed to internal or public clouds. Novell is also anticipating that a mix of Moblin running on netbooks and cloud-based PCs will displace a lot of thick-client PCs running Windows over the next several years.

The trick, of course, is turning all of that activity into money. And as Novell's several-year run with SUSE Linux shows, this can be a lot more difficult than it might at first appear.

Bootnote: After reading this story, Novell decided to clarify how it counts up its catalog of applications for SUSE Linux. Here's how it works. Every unique release of a piece of systems or application software that runs on top of SUSE Linux is counted once if it is qualified on SUSE 9, SUSE 10, or SUSE 11. So, to give a precise example: Oracle's Application Server 10gR2 (10.1.2) and Application Server 10gR3 (10.1.3) are both certified to run on SLES 9 and SLES 10, but that only counts as two applications of the more than 3,500 total. You can see the listing of certified applications for SUSE Linux here. That still doesn't tell us how many applications are on SUSE 9, 10, and 11, but if you have all day, you can build a spreadsheet from the online catalog and figure it out. ®

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