Microsoft, Novell go head to head for ownership of directory services title

Once upon a time, Novell Inc. was living the high life: its NetWare OS was the platform of choice and its NDS directory services arm held a steady market lead. Though NetWare has seen better days, the company remains the predominant player in the directory services space. However, industry experts suggest that Novell may be running out of steam and there is another player ready to pick up where the company may leave off.

Microsoft Corp., though not a dark horse in the race, has recently been sticking its fingers in Novell’s bread and butter. Integrated in its Windows 2000 release is Active Directory (AD), Microsoft’s own version of NDS, which not only authenticates logon procedures and file and print access, but also acts as the repository for applications running on Windows 2000.

And while still a relatively new technology, Active Directory has garnered some fans, most notably of late being the Bank of Montreal Financial Group. Touting the project as the “single largest” technology deployment the bank has taken on, Toronto-based BMO has selected Windows 2000 and Active Directory to be rolled out to more than 1,000 bank branches and over 20,000 workstations.

According to Randy Oswald, senior vice-president, solutions and applications for BMO, the migration has provided its employees with immediate access to in-depth customer information, in turn allowing for more efficient service.

“We had an extensive evaluation of competitive offerings and after we looked at all that, we chose Microsoft,” Oswald said. “Active Directory is an integrated solution with everything else we are doing here. It also offers, in our view, more features than other comparable solutions.”

But according to Warren Shiau, software analyst with International Data Corp. Canada Ltd. in Toronto, the perception that the Novell and Microsoft offerings are “comparable” is a key problem, at least for Novell.

“As long as buyers perceive these (offerings) to be comparable, even if one product is technically superior to another, it is hard to market that superiority,” he explained.

Although the two solutions technically do the same thing, industry experts agree that Novell’s NDS – now eDirectory – is technologically more efficient than Active Directory.

“There are a lot of folks that I talk to that admit they feel (eDirectory) is a better directory service,” said Zeus Kerravala, vice-president of Boston-based research firm Yankee Group. “However, because they feel the world is moving to Microsoft, they might as well too. If you talk to anybody who knows directory services, Novell’s product is better. (However,) it’s never been about the best technology…it’s about your ability to sell it. Microsoft has always been superior there.”

In the short-term, he continued, the interesting dichotomy is that Microsoft customers are more apt to deploy Active Directory on a “leap of faith,” as the solution has yet to be perfected. Issues with replication and training Windows NT 4 users to understand directory services are just a few of the problems that plague AD.

“There have been some (adopters) like the Bank of Montreal who have taken that leap,” Kerravala said. “Long-term, Microsoft will be very strong in the directory services space. But, in the short term, if you understand directory services, in a lot of cases you are likely to stay with Novell.”

As far as Linda Musthaler is concerned, a plausible explanation to the adoption of Microsoft’s offering lies in the fact that as many network administrators are deploying Windows 2000 and soon Windows .NET server, there is a fear of mixing products from multiple vendors. Enterprises are subscribing to the notion that an all-Microsoft solution is less complex.

“That’s fine if you are an all-Windows-shop,” said Musthaler, vice-president of Currid & Company, a Houston-based technology consulting firm. “The big drawback to Active Directory is that it only functions for a Windows environment. Novell’s strong point is that eDirectory can be deployed on NetWare, Windows NT or 2000, Linux or Solaris.”

While Microsoft is slowly eating up some directory service market share, Novell said it has no intentions of playing dead. The company recently announced a new strategy called project Destiny, a roadmap for the next generation of directory services.

The roadmap consists of several key directory releases over the next 18 months, beginning with Novell’s UDDI server later this year. Novell said Destiny will bring forward a new form of directory that can make intelligent decisions about users, data and relationships based on business rules, and enforce those rules and policies across all network resources, including Web services.

“The directory is a core component and one of the most important components that we have at Novell,” said Justin Taylor, chief strategist, directory services for Novell in Provo, Utah. “The difference in our strategy versus Microsoft’s strategy is that Microsoft uses Active Directory to help drive Windows 2000 sales. It is not an independent service. I think it is important to realize, too, that we actually are the market share leaders. Microsoft isn’t anywhere near us. They are so far behind us it is almost laughable.”

Still, no matter how far behind, Microsoft is in the game and has no plans on bowing out.

“Obviously [Novell] is much smaller than Microsoft and doesn’t wield the marketing power,…but technologists understand there is a place for Novell eDirectory in an enterprise network environment,” Currid’s Musthaler said. “Novell’s challenge is to reach the decision-makers who are often not the technologists, but the business people who drink the Microsoft Kool-Aid.”

Yankee Group’s Kerravala offered his own advice to Novell: be more self-promoting and a little more marketing-focused.

“You need Active Directory in order to run applications like Exchange. Why do you need (eDirectory)? They have to get out there and tell people why they need them.”