Novell and Red Hat compete for the king penguin crown

Novell is reinventing itself to challenge complacent Red Hat's reign

Enterprise Linux customers typically pick from two options. Although HP's decision to support Debian could widen the playing field, the choice really comes down to either Novell or Red Hat. It's worth comparing the two companies in terms of product offerings and overall style.

When we speak of Novell, of course, we mean "New Novell." By the mid-90s, "Old Novell," which made its fortune in the 1980s as the premier provider of PC networking software, was on the wane. Poor management and corporate arrogance had frustrated and alienated many of Old Novell's core customers, allowing Microsoft to sweep in and dominate its traditional core markets. But then, as it teetered at the brink of irrelevance, Old Novell reinvented itself as New Novell, a premier provider of Linux software, with the aim of taking the fight back to Microsoft's doorstep.

[Talkback: Read Dave Rosenberg's response to this column, then weigh in with your thoughts.]

The reigning king penguin of the Linux hill, of course, is Red Hat. Although the press and the vendor community like to speak of Novell and Red Hat as peers, Red Hat is far and away the market leader in enterprise Linux. In order to win some of that share for itself, New Novell has to differentiate its offering. It has done so in several ways -- some tangible, others less so.

For starters, RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) is clearly Red Hat's flagship. Most Red Hat customer engagements begin with Linux, and many end there. On the other hand, SLES (Suse Linux Enterprise Server) is functionally equivalent to RHEL in most respects, but Novell has positioned it differently. In many ways, New Novell's flagship is not Linux but Open Enterprise Server, a product that provides Old Novell's well-respected file, print, directory, and network management services using SLES as its foundation (instead of Novell's legacy NetWare OS).

With its latest software revision, however, Novell has begun to differentiate Suse Linux in other ways. One is on the desktop. Red Hat concentrates on enterprise servers, whereas Novell offers a fully supported workstation alternative in SLED (Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop) 10. Second, Novell has put its full support behind Xen  virtualization, touting it as a major feature of SLES 10, but Red Hat has been hesitant to formally adopt the technology.

These are interesting differentiators, but their value is debatable. Virtualization is a hot but nascent market, and Xen, a largely unproven technology, isn't the only option. And desktop Linux has been queued up on the tarmac for years -- who knows when it will really take off? Meanwhile, with the acquisition of JBoss , Red Hat has made arguably the more market-savvy move, adding value at higher levels of the enterprise application stack.

But Novell and Red Hat are different in an even subtler way. Call it corporate culture or call it style, the two companies present very different faces.

Consider LinuxWorld Expo, last week. Novell had a large booth near the entrance of the show floor, where it played host to various partners. Novell representatives were in abundance, sitting on conference panels and offering hands-on tutorial sessions. Special sessions recapped the best content from Novell's own BrainShare  conference.

Red Hat, on the other hand, was a no-show. A cocktail party it sponsored at a nearby hotel was well-attended, but there was little in terms of company messaging or media, customer or investor outreach; not even a promotional flyer.

Likewise, as a member of the technology press, barely a week goes by that I don't receive some kind of e-mail release or contact from Novell or its representatives. By comparison, I hear from Red Hat maybe once every six months.

In short, Novell is well-aware that it is the New Novell. New Novell's success depends on engaging the market, getting its message out to customers, winning developer support, and building community -- and it knows it. It may not be the market leader today, but it wants to go where its customers lead it.

Increasingly, however, Red Hat is aware of the fact that it is The One and Only Red Hat. Red Hat is holding the cards, and the customers will come to Red Hat.

Old Novell used to think that way.