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How the clammy claws of Novell NetWare were torn from today's networks

In a parallel universe, the LAN king would have crushed Microsoft

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Anniversary Before the internet, local area networks were the big thing. A company called Novell was the first to exploit the trend for connecting systems, ultimately becoming "the LAN king" with its NetWare server operating system.

There were alternatives to Novell and NetWare in the 1990s - 3Com’s 3+Share, for example – but such was its appeal that Novell’s share of the LAN market topped 63 per cent at its high point.

Such scale cannot go unnoticed and it caught the interest of Microsoft – then just a PC operating system maker with Office apps. Bill Gates and his team quickly realised they had to build their own server operating system if the were really serious about growing their new company.

In April 1993, Novell released NetWare 4.0, the version that really made the company - and broke it. Twenty years on, it's not Novell or NetWare we talk about on the server: it’s Microsoft and Windows Server - and Linux.

NDS: Killer feature or SMB killjoy?

NetWare 4 was a major upgrade: a native Intel 80386 “NOS” (Network Operating System), like NetWare 3 before it, but now with built-in TCP/IP and better support for applications running on the server.

The big difference, though, was NDS – NetWare Directory Services, a distributed network directory. This was a killer feature for larger multi-site or even multi-server networks, but it was also a killjoy for small business network admins.

The first version of NetWare was a resolutely single-server product – it didn’t even allow multiple servers on a single network. NetWare 1 originally ran on Novell’s proprietary 68000-based server and used a proprietary connection, S-Net, but it offered a compelling advantage over the other early networking systems: file sharing, as opposed to disk sharing.

Rather than splitting up an expensive hard disk into multiple separate segments, one per workstation, NetWare allowed all workstation to access individual files on a single shared volume.

At the time, this wasn’t an obvious idea, but it was soon legitimised by the otherwise-unsuccessful IBM PC LAN. Using a file server meant that PCs could share data with one another, for example permitting the first network-aware PC program of any kind – Novell’s network game SNIPES.

As the networking market grew, Novell ported NetWare to the IBM PC-XT – the upmarket model, with a hard disk as standard – and opened it up to support a dozen other networking systems, including Corvus Omninet, Datapoint ARCnet and 3Com’s new and very expensive Ethernet.

NetWare 2 was a radical rewrite, and one of the first native OSes for Intel’s then new 16-bit CPU, the 80286.

Member when... Intel's 16-bit x86 microprocessor. Image via CPU Collection of Konstantin Lanzet, licensed under Creative Commons

NetWare 2 supported 16MB of server memory and even able to multitask with a copy of MS-DOS for non-dedicated operation. However, it was a pain to install and configure: it was supplied on more than 20 floppy discs and requiring Novell’s proprietary kernel to be re-linked for any configuration change – a lengthy session of “diskaerobics”.

NetWare 3 was the biggest rewrite NetWare would ever get. The OS was modularised, with a kernel and separate NetWare Loadable Modules (NLMs) providing additional functionality. This meant that your NetWare file and print server could also now handle email, for instance. NetWare 3 also offered System Fault Tolerance Level III – the ability to mirror a pair of NetWare servers in a shared-nothing cluster.

NetWare 3 also removed an obscure ability that NetWare 2 had, the significance of which would only appear much later. NetWare 2 could “cold boot”: the OS was able to load itself from a bootable NetWare system volume. NetWare 3 was an MS-DOS executable: your server booted from a DOS partition, or even a DOS floppy, and at the end of AUTOEXEC.BAT you ran SERVER.EXE. DOS remained in RAM unless removed and was needed if you wanted to access files on floppy diskette.

NetWare was now a serious product, ready for prime time – but its authentication system remained a weakness. NetWare’s “Bindery Services” comprised a standalone authentication database, meaning that users had to log on to multiple servers separately – and admins had to maintain separate user lists on every server. “NetWare Name Services” alleviated this as the single database could be extended across multiple servers, but this rapidly became unmanageable for large organisations with multiple sites, particularly if these were in different countries.

This was the problem that NetWare 4 was designed to solve. NDS was a distributed network directory based on the CCITT X.500 standard. A single directory tree would span your entire organisation, with branches containing servers, workstations, users, groups and any other entity whose security you needed to control. Banyan’s VINES had been offering this for years with StreetTalk, but it was a specialist product, whereas NetWare was the leading PC server OS.

What NDS offered was brilliant – it was vastly ahead of Microsoft’s domain security model, as used in OS/2 LAN Manager and Windows NT Server 3.1, also released in 1993.

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