Microsoft rattling the patent case cage

Microsoft's silent threat of patent lawsuits against Linux users is beginning to solidify in the last couple of days. Since the announcement with Novell, Microsoft have been busy trying to establish similar patent protection deals with other Linux vendors. However their attempts have not been greeted warmly by Red Hat who's deputy general counsel ruled out any need for such an agreement on the grounds that "we do not believe there is a need for or basis for the type of relationship".

Fortunately for Microsoft they are not easily deterred by such confidence with CEO Steve Ballmer (in the words of Boing Boing) painting Linux users as patent crooks during a Q&A session on Friday. Although Ballmer did not say it so bluntly he did openly threaten businesses running Linux by stating that the Novell patent protection is crucial otherwise:

"We (Microsoft) believe every Linux customer basically has an undisclosed balance-sheet liability."

Source LinuxWorld - Linux Users Owe Microsoft

These are definitely fighting words but at some stage they are going to have to do more than just rattle their hypothetical sabres and actually sue. If (when) that day comes it will be a very interesting moment in open source history and be a pivotal moment in the future of Microsoft.

The Samba Team responds to Novell's actions

A few weeks after the Novell/Microsoft announcement the Samba Team have officially requested Novell reconsider their stand on patents. The Samba project is an important (if not crucial) piece of open source software that is allowing a wide variety of platforms (but mainly Linux) to compete head to head with Microsoft solutions in the workplace. Jeremy Alison co-heads the Samba project and is an employee of Novell but obviously this has not stopped the team from taking a moral stand against software patents and the actions of Novell and Microsoft.

This stance is completely opposite to the Mono team leader Miguel de Icaza's official support of the deal, but this is not surprising considering 99% of Mono development is funded and directed by Novell. I doubt Novell will heed Samba's request but at least its good to see such a prominent project take such a decisive stand on the matter.

Novell Open Audio on the state of iFolder

Ted Haegar of Novell Open Audio fame is doing a great job addressing some of the points I raised earlier this year about the podcast. Not only is he managing to keep up his jet-setting lifestyle but in between jaunts to all four corners of the world he is managing to interview some really great Novell people like Jason Williams on the future of iFolder.

iFolder for those who don't know is an easy to use file synchronisation tool. Unfortunately iFolder is one of those (all too many) Novell products that is brilliant in concept but hasn't quite made it when it comes to execution or industry uptake. A good analogy to describe iFolder would be that of an Olympic high diver from a small ex-Soviet block state attempting a dive that would surely win the gold but because of lack of preparation, brought on by the fact they couldn't afford to practice full-time and instead were milking cows, they just don't quite pull it off when it counts.

What do I mean by this? iFolder 2 was nice but it was heavily tied into Netware, offered only a Windows client and had a restrictive usage model. iFolder 3 promised to fix these shortcomings but instead (prior to version 3.6) it seems to have lost its direction and paid the price for certain architectural decisions that in hindsight are questionable. In both cases the potential was there but the focus and determination to pull off the task seemed to wane as time progressed.

How things are shaping up with the Novell/Microsoft deal

If you are part of the Linux/Novell community last week you would have no doubt heard of the Microsoft - Novell agreement. When it was first announced it looked materially very boring on the surface comprising of a couple of virtualisation developments and a promise by the two companies to work on OfficeXML and directory system interoperability. All this is fairly trivial but what made the deal controversial was the promise from Microsoft not to sue Novell customers for using Linux.

The two 'problem' technologies that fall under this legal cloud is Mono, an implementation of Microsoft's .Net runtime for Linux and Samba, a SMB compatible client/server capable of mimicking the network functionality within Microsoft products. Whether or not there is any real legal grounds for patent infringement is a matter for debate. Neither break copyright laws and the extent of patent infringement by either project has never been described by any party. Nonetheless Microsoft has successfully created and maintained a cloud of uncertainty over these products, a feat helped in no small part by their support of the long running SCO vs IBM/Novell lawsuit (which boils down to the copyright status of some Linux code).

To open source or not open source, that is the question

Thanks to Ted Haegar I came across a piece by Tony Whitmore on a similar topic to my Novell Open Audio review. Tony raises a couple of good ideological questions about the development models at work within Novell, more precisely around the AppArmor and XGL products. Whilst each software project is unique in its own way his questioning of the strategies employed by Novell does beg the difficult question, how open source should product development be?

Novell vs Red Hat: A tale of two marketing atrocities?

NetworkWorld is running a good article on the competition between Novell and Red Hat in the Linux marketplace and how for once Novell may not be the worst marketing department in the game. The article makes some good points, Red Hat largely has its dominant position in the Linux market through being first and not because of tremendous marketing initiative or product direction. In fact for the last couple of years it kind of feels like they have been stationery bystanders compared to the frenetic activity within the Novell and Ubuntu camps recently.

On Novell Open Audio

I was worried when I first heard about Novell Open Audio because based on their past performances I felt there was a real danger Novell would goof this up and produce a series of gutless, infomercial-type marketing clips complete with poorly written scripts about boring products that people do not care about. However I really liked the concept as Novell in general is just terrible at getting any type of message across. Just take a look at a few of their product pages and ask yourself what exactly is Novell trying to communicate about these products based solely on the information presented onscreen (and what is the deal with paragraphed sized hyperlinks?).

With this in mind the first show (or two) were a little sketchy. It did sound like there was a subtle script at play in the first few interviews. Ted Haeger (the show lead) seemed to know a little too much about the products in question and the topics of conversation appeared to lead a little too nicely from one to the next. What kept me listening however was the topics covered, they were genuinely interesting and covered the broad range of Novell’s product line from Suse to Groupwise.

Over time Ted has gained in confidence (it seems like he has left scripts behind) and the inclusion of co-host Erin Quill has also added a degree of dynamism to the podcast. As the shows have progressed I’ve also begun to realise Ted knows a lot more about the products and topics in question than your casual podcast host thanks to his prior work at Novell. The people interviewed have been also been great. I could honesty listen to Jeremy Alison bash Microsoft all day and I just wish they didn’t have to censor his language. What has also added to the shows ‘street-cred’ has been Ted’s involvement in other open-source activities like GUADEC and LugRadio. This has helped transform the podcaster’s image from potential corporate puppet to slightly alcoholic jet-setter (which deep down we all want to be).

One thing that I would really like to hear is more aggression (some would say crankiness) from Ted or someone else as the audio paints an altogether too rosy image of Novell and its products. Let’s be honest, this is a company that has gone from monopoly to minority in the server business and has made making stupid decisions that ruin a great product into an art-form.
Hearing from Jeremy Allison and Nat Friedman about Samba/desktop Linux is great but it is only half the story. The law of averages (and past business decisions) implies there are some real idiots working within the company and I would not mind hearing from them too, even if it was the sound of silence followed by some uncomfortable microphone dribbling.

Novell promoting the Linux community

This is not a bad move from Novell. By setting up this Frapr mashup they have in some part begun to illustrate the depth and breadth of the Linux (mainly Suse) community. I put my name down just because of the rumours that there were Suse Linux licenses potentially up for grabs, I would not mind a Suse Linux Enterprise Server license as they are pretty pricey. Novell traditionally have been too old fashioned in their approach to Linux, hopefully this move and the growing quality of the Novell Open Audio podcast help in some way to break those old stodgy barriers down.

I am now a certified Novell Linux Professional

suse.gifLast week I sat and passed by Novell Certified Linux Professional exam. It was a very tough test of lots of random Linux topics. My exam covered Samba, remote logging, logrotate and xinetd in two and a half hours. Given the variety of different tasks you had to perform the two and a half hours went very quickly. A lot of the later parts of the questions required a good read of quite a few man records in order to get just the right syntax for the respective command. Fortunately Novell helped out in a few occasions with some nice little hints for those who were a little stuck (or did not know where to start).

The test was quite unique in that whilst it was held at Novell in Wellington the actual test environment (two independent servers) were in Utah and accessed via VNC in a web browser. This made things a little tricky because there was a large amount of lag. This made typing commands really tricky sometimes as a single typo would result in a thirty second delay whilst you painstakingly fixed the error. Just to add injury to insult the tab key on the laptop supplied did not perform any tab actions within the VNC terminals. This meant that any ncurses based interfaces were out (like terminal based Yast). Everything had to be done by key commands or through the slow KDE interface. The funny thing was I had read the book that was meant to build you up for the exam but the subject matter covered in the exam compared to example questions and content in the book had almost no relation. Consequently I ended up learning quite a bit during the exam (probably a first) which in retrospect was actually pretty cool.

Apparently I was the first person in New Zealand to pass the exam on their first attempt. I am not surprised at this given the difficulty of the questions (especially compared to exam preparation material), the client/server delays and the pass mark being set at a very high 85%. I did really well on the logging and xinetd sections but had a bit of a nightmare on the Samba section. The server lag made Samba testing in the limited time span almost impossible plus I think my decision to use the binary tbdsam backend rather than sticking with the default (but insecure, slow and poorly extensible) smbpasswd file. I still ended up with a low 90% score which given the circumstances I was pretty happy with. The ultimate irony that I had never used SUSE Enterprize 9 before my exam (and probably never will). All my past and future experience has been with SUSE Pro and OpenSUSE.

Border Manager with Linux Howto

After some experimenting today I have put together a howto for getting Linux to authenticate to a Border Manager proxy server. If you do not know what that means do not worry but if you do and have tried in the past you maybe very interested to have a read of this tutorial.