Novell getting aggressive?

More aggressive. More edgy. That is the road that Novell Inc. plans to take in the future, according to the company’s recently appointed vice-chairman, Chris Stone.

Stone took the stage at the company’s annual BrainShare user conference in Salt Lake City, Utah last month, delivering the only opening keynote. Missing in action once again from the conference was President and CEO Jack Messman, who was reportedly recovering in hospital after undergoing a surgical procedure. Just before his appointment as CEO last year, Messman made only a brief appearance at BrainShare 2001, ducking out early to tend to “prior engagements.”

Making up for Messman’s absence did not appear to be troubling for Stone. In his address to the masses, he made it clear that the path ahead would be a different one for Novell.

Modifications within the company have already begun. Novell has seen many people come and go over the last few months, including the departure of Stuart Nelson, the company’s former COO, in February, and the promotion of Carl Ledbetter in early March. Along with his role as CTO, Ledbetter will also don the hat of senior vice-president, engineering/research and development. But on top of the managerial shufflings and product focus, Stone said there will be a stronger line of attack from Novell in the market.

In an interview with Network World Canada, Stone explained that all of these changes are not strictly due to his arrival at Novell. He said he knew what some of the problems were coming in, having been with the company as its executive vice-president for strategy and development from 1997 to 1999. He said Messman also realized changes needed to be implemented, but “he needed a catalyst, so I became that…It was fairly well calculated. It just all happened at once.”

At least one change is finding support from attendees.

“I want to stress that (this doesn’t mean) a new Novell. We’re just making some changes. We’re going to get aggressive,” Stone said, drawing a round of applause form the crowd. “We plan to dominate and to drive,” he later added.

But the promise to be more aggressive is something Novell customers have heard before and have never really seen followed through to fruition. Attendee Stuart Holtby, CEO of Regina, Sask.-based Allstar Tech, is a Novell customer and a systems integrator. He has been providing Novell solutions since 1992, “and so we’ve seen Novell go from (being) the king of the mountains to not-so-king,” he said.

While Holtby said he is optimistic and thinks Novell is on track, he still has some concerns, even after listening to Stone.

“The worry we have is that we want to make sure that Novell will stay strong, and there has been that question, clearly,” he explained. “I welcome the edginess. The only thing you’ve got to be careful of is when you take that stance, you have to back it up. And I think Novell has tried that stance and sort of recoiled a little bit, and I think that they were sort of unsure that that is the stance that they should take. So I guess time will tell.”

So what will be different this time? Stone summed it up in one word: leadership.

“It’s leadership from the management team down,” he said, explaining that it will have to be demonstrated by everyone in the company, from sales to product development. Everyone needs to be able to take accountability for their actions. And if they don’t get it right, “they’re out of here.”

But the company’s plans to be aggressive are also slightly disconcerting for Holtby. The company has always treated him well, he said, and he is worried that the personal attention and care he has seen from the company will disappear should it try to get too aggressive.

But Stone stressed there is nothing to worry about. “You can still be edgy and have attitude without being a jerk to your customers.”

Novell’s changes are not limited to its marketing and staff. They will also be seen in its offerings, and in its intention to focus on the delivery of Web services. As an example: Stone vowed that the company will be getting rid of application programming interfaces (APIs), making room for XML interfaces instead.

Product-wise, the company will be taking a more streamlined approach, ultimately offering “solutions” and not just products. This will be done in part with Cambridge Technology Partners, now part of Novell, although the acquisition and merging process between it and Novell is still ongoing, according to Stone. This move will also enable the company to target “higher up the food chain,” by getting CxOs to buy into the technology to improve business.

The Cambridge branch of Novell has not been making a whole lot of noise since the announcement of the merger a year ago. But according to Robert Couture, the firm’s vice-president of global consulting, the branch has of late has started to make its moves. He explained that at its most basic, the consulting branch will be teaming up with the product and sales branches to determine how the best offerings from all sides can be combined to provide solutions.

“We’re pretty young, but already I think we’re starting to see a lot of synergy between what we can do,” he explained. “How is it working so far? It has been a slow start. (But ) I’m surprised: the last six weeks have started to show a significant amount of energy.”

The road to Novell’s solutions-focused strategy began at BrainShare with some announcements, including two new solutions: Novell ZENworks Synergy, and Novell Workspace. Synergy will offer services bundled from Novell into a single suite, enabling companies to get information out to their employees no matter where they are, no matter what type of device they are using. Synergy will be available in May, and pricing will be US$159 per user license.

Workspace, what the company is calling a “Web-based team solution,” provides messaging and information-exchange capabilities, enabling groups to be created, work together and be dismantled as required. Workspace is currently being tested in a closed beta, and is expected to be released in the third quarter of this year. Pricing was not available.

Another release on the horizon: eDirectory 8.7, which Stone is calling a “policy engine,” where users are able to store information such as rules and roles. The latest version will be available in beta on April 15.

Also ranking high on Novell’s focus list is its upcoming release of what it calls packaged identity-provisioning solutions. The first offering in this area – code-named Mercury – will target the provisioning of employees, and will be available later this year. Consequent versions of the offering will target the provisioning of customers and students.