Novell in transition mode as users gather

As Novell Inc. holds its annual BrainShare user conference this week in Salt Lake City, the software and IT services vendor remains in transition on several fronts.

The conference is the first for Novell and its users since the company acquired Cambridge, Mass.-based IT consulting firm Cambridge Technology Partners Inc. in July as part of a plan to reduce its reliance on sales of packaged software.

The conference also follows several senior management changes at Novell during the past three weeks. In the biggest move, the company brought back former executive Christopher Stone to take over operations such as engineering, marketing and consulting.

Meanwhile, within its software business, Novell has shifted from a NetWare-centric strategy to one that focuses heavily on directory services and systems management tools. The company last week added a version of its ZENworks software that manages handheld devices, and it plans to announce several products that don’t touch on NetWare at this week’s conference.

As part of its change in strategy, Novell has spent the past year enabling its key products to work in a heterogenous world. The ZENworks management tool for PCs is now operating-system-agnostic, and Novell last summer uncoupled its eDirectory software from NetWare, giving users a single point of access to all networked applications and services.

The open question, however, is whether Novell has been able to get users to recognize its newfound openness.

“People naturally believe if you buy something from Novell, you’ve got to have NetWare to run it,” said Earl Perkins, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. “The truth is, they play in a lot of sandboxes these days, but they haven’t gotten that word out.”

Perkins said Novell’s ultimate goal is to support single sign-on capabilities across multiple operating systems. “They say they’ve got it licked, but I’m not sure I believe them,” he said. “That’s one of the things I’m going to be interested to see at BrainShare.”

James Taylor, president of The East Cobb Group in Marietta, Ga., and chairman of his region’s Novell user group, said he hopes to see more Linux desktop support from the company. Novell’s software is “tied too much to Windows,” Taylor said.

Novell in Provo, Utah is at