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Is Novell committed to open source? That was the headline of a column I wrote a few months ago in which I argued that Novell should demonstrate its resolve to continue along the open-source track on which it had embarked by releasing the code to the Ximian Connector for Microsoft Exchange.

Novell has hitched its fortunes increasingly tightly to open source over the past year, from integrating free software components in NetWare 6.5 and embracing Linux as a supported (and soon primary) platform for its network services stack to purchasing desktop Linux development house Ximian and leading Linux distributor SuSE.

However, it remained to be seen whether Novell believed enough in open source to not only make closed software freely available to users, but also allow competitors to adopt and build on that code themselves.

Last week, I was encouraged to see Novell release the Ximian Connector under the free GPL, where it joins a growing list of once-closed code that Novell has opened—including SuSE’s YaST installation and configuration tools and Novell’s iFolder file-sharing technology.

If the arguments I made in my previous column about Novell and the Ximian Connector are correct, Novell should find that this product, as well as the others it has opened, will be more valuable now than before.

First off, now that the code for the Connector is free, we should see development speed up. While Novell leads development of the Evolution groupware client into which the Connector plugs, Sun Microsystems and Red Hat also ship Evolution as the default mail client with their Linux offerings. We can expect to see development contributions from both of these firms, and we’ll likely see help come from other projects unrelated to Evolution, such as the mail clients from Apple and the KDE Project.

Another important effect of the code-opening decisions is that Novell will attract more users for its products, putting Novell in a better position to sell these users other products or services. It’ll be easier to convince a site running Evolution on the client side and Exchange on the server to consider a move to Groupwise than it would be for a site running Outlook on the client side.

However, if Novell is to win battles for enterprise hearts, minds and dollars, it will have to do more than open some of its code. For one thing, the strategy I mentioned above for weaning companies from Exchange would be a lot more viable if Novell produced a Windows port of Evolution.

Right now, Evolution is probably the most prominent open-source desktop application not to support Windows. The fact that I can run the Mozilla Project’s Thunderbird mail client on both Windows and Linux—as I can with, Firefox and Gaim—has had me running Thunderbird in place of Evolution in recent weeks.

A more important task facing Novell moving forward is assembling an integrated, approachable face to turn toward the open-source community. For instance, Novell announced that it was releasing YaST under the GPL as part of a systems management project back in March— and yet, there’s no YaST project page, no source for other companies or community members to connect with the YaST project to adopt these excellent tools for their own purposes or to participate in their development.

According to a company official, Novell has some organizational issues to work out before bringing such a page online. This isn’t surprising, since SuSE always regarded YaST as a key differentiator, which is why SuSE released it under a non-free license.

Next page: A free YaST could lead to an all free, community-oriented SuSE release.

It’s not clear whether other Linux distributions will choose to adopt YaST for themselves now that the code is open, but the GPL-ing of YaST was probably intended to serve a purpose different than garnering wider usage.

More important than the fact that YaST code can now be used and improved by others is the fact that a free YaST removes one of the biggest barriers to an all-free, community-oriented SuSE release, similar to Debian or Red Hat’s Fedora.

The commercial incarnations of Fedora and Debian draw strength from their broad non-commercial roots—SuSE would benefit from this sort of root system as well, and it’s a foundation that Novell can afford to provide.

When SuSE Linux was the flagship product of SuSE Linux AG, maybe it made sense to leverage YaST’s license as a tool to ensure that users paid for each copy of SuSE Linux they installed. But as part of Novell’s new top-to-bottom strategy, SuSE Linux is more important as a building block.

Click here to read eWEEK Labs’ review of the latest version of SuSE Linux.

As non-commercial projects, Debian and Fedora invite—and enjoy—broad community participation, enabling those inclined to take those distributions in directions that Red Hat or the Debian Project either chose not to or didn’t consider.

In the case of Fedora, the distribution functions both as a testbed for code and technology that’ll migrate to subscription-based Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and as an all-free, bleeding/leading-edge Linux distribution for those who wish to run it or build other projects atop it.

With Debian, the central distribution is completely noncommercial, but it provides a strong foundation for a healthy mix of commercial and noncommercial Linux distributions and projects.

Releasing YaST under the GPL is a good start toward building the influence and reach of SuSE Linux, and while Novell has some intra-company organization and integration issues to work out—particularly when it comes to developing a unified, community-facing Web presence—Novell has a good start with its Novell Forge site.

Novell is working to reinvent itself as an open-source-embracing company, and it’s still in the early stages of that process, digesting acquisitions and deciding how its proprietary code fits with its new direction. While there’s still plenty to be done, Novell so far has been making all the right moves.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at

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