Novell talks up Linux future

Novell staffers met with THINQ ahead of the opening of the second annual OpenSuSE conference to give us a low-down on where the company stands at the moment and where its own distribution will be heading in the future.

Markus Rex, Novell's general manager for open platform solutions, was first to the plate and told us clearly that the company had no new comments to make about its somewhat uncertain future. Discussing what he called "the big elephant in the room," which is to say the rumours of a planned buyout of Novell, Rex explained that Novell's board of directors, "is evaluating its various options, and that has not changed - and had that changed, you would know."

Moving on to happier subjects, Rex was pleased to report that the company's enterprise Linux offering, SuSE Linux Enterprise Server, has enjoyed "very, very good, strong, and solid growth" - in large due to Novell's close collaboration with the open source community.

Ralf Flaxa, Novell's vice president of engineering, confirmed Rex's comments, explaining that Novell is only too aware that the openSuSE distribution forms the foundation of Novell's commercial offerings and that it owes a serious debt to the community behind it - a debt that Novell is only too glad to help repay.

While openSuSE is, ostensibly, an independent distribution, an estimated 85 per cent of its income comes from Novell's corporate sponsorship. Despite this, Flaxa is keen to point out, Novell doesn't attempt to bend the openSuSE community to its will, allowing the community to develop technologies in the areas that it - rather than Novell - feels are important.

Flaxa said Novell understands that, "the community can only flourish if it works for the community". He said Novell is making investments specifically designed to help the open source community flourish.

Flaxa went on to tell us that, "in contrast to Ubuntu, when it comes to the community, [Novell] understands how important it is to give back," detailing cross-platform investments such as the OpenSuSE Build Service and SuSE Studio which are not necessarily in the core interests of Novell's enterprise Linux business.

It's clear that Novell is attempting to avoid being seen as a parasite, but as an active and useful contributor to the openSuSE community - and it certainly seems to be achieving that goal.

Gerald Pfeifer, Novell's director of product management, offered some hints as to the direction that SuSE Linux Enterprise Server, the company's commercial Linux offering, will be going: with major investment in real-time kernel technologies, high availability, and clustering, it's clear that Novell is looking to assault the big players in the enterprise Linux market.

Pfeifer explained that the company has learned from a security issue it experienced last year with a package which didn't get pushed out to many customers, introducing a 'General Update' channel which contains updates for packages that can be shared between service packs along with a lengthened service pack cycle.

Interestingly, Pfeifer confirmed that Novell will be throwing its weight behind next-generation file system format BTRFS, abandoning the traditional EXT file system that has been a staple of SuSE LInux for years. Describing BTRFS as "the future of local Linux file systems," Pfeifer confirmed that the format will be upgraded from technology preview to fully supported in SuSE Linux Enterprise Server Service Pack 2.

Pfeifer was so sure that BTRFS is the future, he stated that "there is no file system on the market or in design, that we know of, that would be better than BTRFS." He was quick to point out, however, that Novell will continue to support older file systems, such as EXT and ReiserFS, "for many years."

Novell has been concentrating on being the perfect guest operating system on a variety of hypervisors for virtualisation, and continued investment in services like SuSE Studio proves that will continue - but there were interesting hints at a push towards being a virtualisation host, too. While staff weren't forthcoming on specifics, Pfeifer did cryptically state that "being the perfect husband doesn't exclude being the perfect father."

With Novell's Linux business continuing to grow, the future looks bright for the company - even if rumours of a buyout prove true - and, by extension, for the open source community it sponsors.