Little Suse wakes up, Linux shakes up

After years of playing second fiddle to Red Hat Enterprise Linux, can Suse Linux complete its post-Novell comeback?

Thursday saw the start of the next phase of life for Suse Linux with completion of the merger of its owner into the British company Micro Focus. Will this latest move help or hurt the venerable Linux distributor?

While it has long played second fiddle to Red Hat, Suse was the first commercial enterprise Linux distribution more than 20 years ago. The company grew strong in Europe, and for many years, there was a de facto geographical split in business Linux usage between Suse in Europe and Red Hat in the United States.

When the Web bubble burst at the turn of the millennium, Suse fell on hard times. Though shored up by IBM -- which sought to ensure it had a second vendor in its two-vendor Linux strategy -- the company was acquired by Novell. Although the software was well-maintained, Novell had a tendency to treat Suse as merely a core Linux distribution and discourage its evolution into other enterprise software trends (the bailiwick of other parts of Novell).

With Novell’s acquisition in 2011 by legacy application specialist AttachMate, Suse was given a second chance to adapt to the market. It regained the autonomy of an independent company and doubled down on its enterprise offerings. The consequence, according to Suse president Nils Brauckmann, has been a succession of growth years. Brauckmann told me that in 2014 the company has seen 16 percent revenue growth in its financial year to date arising from an increase in orders of 27 percent, of which 65 percent are new business.

A tighter focus

This success has been achieved in part by dropping any pretense of supporting Linux on desktop or mobile platforms beyond supporting developer needs through a new desktop module in SLES 12. Rather than let go of employees, the company spun off a couple of new businesses, including the Mono specialist Xamarin, which is seeing considerable influence leading Microsoft’s rethink of .Net as an open source project.

Open source community members have long been concerned about Suse’s relationship with Microsoft. Yet Brauckmann told me that since he took control, Microsoft has been no different from any other partner. The suspected complicity with Redmond that dogged Suse during the Novell days no longer seems relevant.

Meanwhile, the company has courted other partners, as well as enterprise customers. IBM, HP, SAP, and Unisys all rely on Suse Linux for various offerings; it’s a key part of IBM’s Linux on System z, for example. At its SuseCon event in Orlando this week, around 400 delegates gathered to explore SLES 12, including staff from Lockheed Martin and insurance industry giant Swiss Re. Suse continues to add new enterprise features; the latest is Live Patching, allowing system patching of running production systems.

Like its Linux competitors, Suse is also targeting the cloud. It's deeply engaged with OpenStack, where former Suse community leader Alan Clark is chairman of the board. The OpenStack experience inspired Suse to embark on a new software-defined storage strategy using Ceph this week. To encourage its customers to stay loyal, Suse also announced that existing customers can use their Suse subscriptions in public cloud deployments with approved providers such as Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform, and Microsoft Azure.

All eyes on Micro Focus

Will becoming part of a publicly traded company again make a difference? Micro Focus, like Attachmate, specializes in legacy technologies. Originally a Cobol specialist, Micro Focus has expanded to acquire emulator specialist NetManage, dev tools veteran Borland, and Iona’s CORBA products. Comments from Micro Focus executive chairman Kevin Loosemore at SuseCon suggest the company will leave Suse on its own to succeed as part of the larger group.

Micro Focus seems to have no significant open source products in its existing portfolio, so understanding the community-based dynamic of Suse’s business may be new territory. But thanks to the cloud, this is a time flux in the Linux market, and Suse clearly has a new opportunity to grab its share.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.