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Product Review: Novell bridges the OS gap

Product Review: Novell bridges the OS gap

Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things to do, but Novell has finally faced up to the truth that its flagship NetWare operating system has fallen by the wayside. Although what was undoubtedly the best OS of the file-and-print days had been substantially improved throughout the seven years I covered and reviewed it, it became clear that NetWare was never going to be a serious first choice for an application platform. That's a fatal flaw today, when applications and services are how IT delivers.

Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things to do, but Novell has finally faced up to the truth that its flagship NetWare operating system has fallen by the wayside. Although what was undoubtedly the best OS of the file-and-print days had been substantially improved throughout the seven years I covered and reviewed it, it became clear that NetWare was never going to be a serious first choice for an application platform. That's a fatal flaw today, when applications and services are how IT delivers.

Fortunately -- for itself as well as for its customers -- Novell appears to be pulling off the impossible by retiring NetWare and delivering a Linux-based server OS in a package that keeps a foot in both camps. OES (Open Enterprise Server) 1.0 is a unique offering because it incorporates two vastly different operating systems and provides existing NetWare customers with a cleaner migration path to an open, standards-based application platform. OES enables the creation of server clusters that mix NetWare and Linux servers, and the vast majority of services that one expects from a Novell OS run equally well on either platform.

There is, however, one truck-size "gotcha" in this first pass. The lack of any sort of 64-bit support in OES is troubling and inexplicable, considering that one of the strongest points in favor of OES's Linux core -- SLES (Suse Linux Enterprise Server) -- is its support for AMD64; Intel's EM64T and Itanium; and IBM's Power, zSeries, and S/390 architectures. Yes, I know S/390 is 31-bit.

In its initial release, OES is not much more than a label pasted over the core OS, whether it's NetWare 6.5 with Support Pack 3 or SLES 9 with Support Pack 1. The OS choice determines how installation takes place, what services can be supported, and how clustered services can be moved from one OS to another. The big caveat with clusters is that any services that must run across mixed NetWare-SLES clusters have to be set up as NetWare-based services first. After that, services can move from one host to others, subject only to the limitations of the OS. Novell seems to be encouraging the use of clusters for migration through its inclusion of a two-server NetWare cluster license as part of the stock OES package. That's a big plus in my book.

Old and new

Managing OES still requires a mixture of tools, including the Java-based ConsoleOne and a refreshed browser-based iManager. I shall not miss NetWare's text-based C-Worthy menu systems as an interface into server-specific configuration and processes, but the YaST2 (Yet Another Setup Tool 2) that provides similar functionality for SLES can be maddeningly free of feedback. As an example, the Novell service configuration on SLES feels as if it's hit-and-miss: There's nothing worse than configuring a service and then being presented with a blank gray window that -- in the absence of an error message -- may or may not be a sign of success.

The peculiarities of YaST aside, setting up and using OES is a relatively straightforward process. One should expect to spend a few hours per server -- assuming this is a bare-metal installation -- and pay attention to any caveats from one's hardware vendor, especially those regarding SLES configuration. That may just be common sense, but it's all too easy to forget those details in today's hothouse IT climate.

Although the OES component OSes are themselves well-documented, it's still possible to find oneself in a corner where the manuals and knowledge bases fall short, as I did twice.

Getting out of the first jam required me to clean up a botched installation of iManager on an OES server running SLES, which I accomplished by simply running the iManager service installer under YaST. The second came about when I attempted to add that OES/SLES server to an existing cluster of NetWare servers and managed to create a classic "How the hell did I do that?" situation: The cluster recognized the SLES server, but the SLES server wouldn't join the cluster. Because one can't remove Novell Cluster Services, I was forced to resort to wipe-and-reload. Generalizing from one spotty experience is a bad practice, but I can say that whatever I did probably isn't reproducible in a production environment, thank heaven.

Bright tomorrow

With those hurdles behind me, things settled down. Most importantly for those charged with the care and feeding of servers, I saw that the iManager and ConsoleOne tools managed the OES servers effectively and minimized the problems associated with mixed-OS deployments. Truthfully, I was expecting an experience not unlike that of viewing the tap-dancing elephant and being amazed that it worked at all. Instead, I found myself handing out style points.

Ultimately, style will prove the differentiator between one Linux and the others, and that's where Novell holds a significant lead. OES is the first Linux-based platform that I've found to fit very well into an existing IT infrastructure, not just as an oddity but as a core component. Sure, there are less-expensive Linux implementations available, but what one gets from those is generally a bunch of software "lumps" that share only installation media.

Instead, Novell delivers with OES a coherent, enterprise-ready Linux that ties easily into existing infrastructure without requiring significant reworking of live systems.

OES is truly a unique animal. By giving customers a chance to combine the stability and performance of NetWare and the application friendliness of Linux, Novell has found a way to move customers into a more sustainable computing environment without forcing wrenching change that would drive some accounts into the arms of competing vendors. OES 1.0 has some rough spots, but it's hardly a kludge. When Novell adds support for advanced 64-bit hardware -- and I'm expecting that announcement any day now -- OES will be a killer operating system. Not as pretty as Mac OS X, not as well-marketed as Solaris, but a platform with nothing but growth ahead of it. -- InfoWorld (US)

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