Microvell’s big chill

Microsoft/Novell paves the way for the return of Advanced Server for Unix

Microsoft has intentionally rendered unsafe all but one path to heterogeneity, that being the use of Novell’s SLES (Suse Linux Enterprise Server) in networks with Windows. By immunizing Novell against future intellectual property actions, Microsoft tacitly notified other players in commercialized open source that Microsoft sets the rules for Windows interoperability from now on.

The potential fallout of Microvell is enormous. I’ll grant that I may be overreacting, but I’m hearing voices in the wind that Microvell has the potential and intent to force serious changes in the market for non-Windows commercial system software. I have two major concerns. The first is what I see as Microsoft taking aim at Apple Computer through Microvell. The second, which I address here, involves Advanced Server for Unix.

Years before the Samba open source project brought SMB (server message block) Windows file/print interoperability to non-Windows operating systems, Microsoft had a commercial offering, Advanced Server for Unix, that did the same thing and then some. I don’t remember what the license fee for ASU was, but it was substantial enough to discourage people from bypassing Windows by running inexpensive PC Unix with ASU on top. ASU’s prospects rose and sank with those of PC Unix, which explains why it is unfamiliar to most InfoWorld readers. Now that there are production servers running Linux with Samba to bypass Windows, Microsoft needs ASU or its like more than ever.

I know ASU. We met on SCO Unix, which became Novell’s UnixWare , which continued to morph after the end of its useful life. ASU was one of those “when it worked, it worked beautifully” deals. I dumped it in favor of equipping my Windows servers and clients with NFS (Sun’s Network File System, which is now an open standard) because ASU releases didn’t keep pace with changes to Windows.

If you’re looking for comfort in the perception that ASU was unstable to the point of unusable and would likely re-emerge in that condition, get real. Microsoft let 64-bit Windows rot for 10 years, and it reanimated nicely. Besides, Novell has more to work with than just ASU. It has all of the intelligence it gathered and software it created during the days when Microsoft and Novell were arch-nemeses. Is any of that ancient stuff still useful? Without a doubt. Things haven’t changed as much as you think. Novell just didn’t have permission to dig in its own archives. What Novell doesn’t find in its vaults, Microsoft’s unusual patent-infringement-forgiveness-in-advance deal seems to grant Novell permission to reverse-engineer its way to compatibility with modern Windows Server releases. Even though Samba’s free, a proprietary ASU-like Windows interoperability product bearing Novell’s logo would become a standard purchase with practically every commercial Linux sale.

Honestly, I see the reinvigoration of ASU or its like to be a good thing. I’m not all that wild about Samba. So what casts a shadow over this? First, Microsoft only gave Novell permission to forge ahead without regard for Microsoft patents. As far as I’m aware, it’s not a privilege that other players can purchase, much less be handed. Second, an ASU-like product would carry with it the right for Microsoft to impose seat and server licenses and to subject Linux server owners to enforcement of Microsoft licenses. And last, there’s no end to what Microvell can do within the law. If you let them.

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