Volume 3, Number 26 -- July 18, 2006

Novell Aggressively Launches SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10

Updated: July 18, 2006

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

After being the number two in the commercial Linux distribution business, far behind Red Hat, Novell is hoping that by getting virtualization, improved driver support, and other features into its server variant of the SUSE Linux platform--as well as simpler and more aggressive pricing--it will be able to kick sales up a notch or two and start closing the sales gap with Red Hat. If SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 doesn't in fact do that, it is hard to imagine what will.

Provided that the code is stable, the feature set in SLES 10 is going to definitely be appealing to IT shops both large and small. SLES 10, which is based on the Linux 2.6.16 kernel, has one of the hottest server features right now: an integrated hypervisor from the open source Xen hypervisor project launched by XenSource. (There are actually two variants of this kernel--one with the Xen hypervisor compiled into it, so it can virtualize Linux, Windows, or Solaris instances and one that is just a plain vanilla Linux 2.6.16 kernel.) SLES 10 is also the first Linux server version from Novell that has the AppArmor security middleware bundled into its distribution.

SLES 10 runs on 32-bit or 64-bit iron, and is supported on X86, X64, Power, Itanium, and mainframe architectures. It can scale from single-core, single-socket servers all the way up to dual-core, 32-socket machines. And perhaps more importantly, Novell has thrown away the old SLES 9 price list, which had prices that were dependent on chip architectures, and now charges the same on X86, X64, Power, and Itanium machines for initial licenses with installation support and follow-on tech support for the entire SUSE stack. Mainframe customers, however, have to pay a premium for support.

"We have two prices: Mainframes and everything else, and I don't care what kind of server or chip it is," explains Justin Steinman, director of marketing for Linux and open platform solutions at Novell. "Our customers have said to us that we have to be easier to do business with, and now we are."

So for non-mainframe servers--meaning X86, X64, Power, and Itanium machines--a license to SLES 10 costs $349, which includes 90 days of installation support and a year's worth of access to security patches and software updates over the Web using Novell's Yast2 tool. If you want to get human-based tech support for the entire stack of SUSE software (which includes databases, middleware, and applications), then Novell is charging $799 for this standard support option. Standard support is 12x5, with a four-hour callback from a Novell tech support rep. If you are really jumpy about support, then you pay $1,499 and get priority support, which offers a one-hour callback and 24x7 coverage. If you buy a three-year license or support contract, you get a 17 percent discount. (As we go to press, the Novell online store was offering an electronic license for a three-year subscription to SLES 10 with standard support with a 37 percent discount, while the boxed set of the same software and support had only a 17 percent discount for three years. If this turns out to be the real price, and not a mistake, this is a great deal and you should jump on it. And if it turns out to be a mistake, then Novell made it and you should jump faster.)

On the mainframe, the basic SLES 10 license costs $11,999 per mainframe engine (not machine), with a license bundled with standard tech support costing $14,999 and a license with priority tech support costing $17,999. Novell claims to be installed on 80 percent of the IBM mainframes in the world that are using mainframes. I have heard elsewhere that IBM has over 1,700 customers that have deployed Linux on their mainframes, which is a significant percentage of the installed base--perhaps 10 percent to 20 percent of the base, depending on whose figures you use to gauge the number of customers who use mainframes in the world. Considering that customers who want a standard license to SLES 10 on an X64, Power, or Itanium machine could deploy it on a 16-core or 32-core box (or larger) for $799, or about $25 to $50 per core per year, that $14,999 for a single mainframe engine might seem a bit high, especially considering that all of these platforms can be virtualized in one way or another and potentially support dozens or hundreds of partitions. However, when you look at the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per month that big mainframe shops pay for z/OS, SLES 10 looks like a heck of a bargain. A product's price is the price that the market will bear; no one said it would be fair.

Novell is counting on the Xen hypervisor to be a significant draw, and give it a leg up on Red Hat, which will not have Xen integrated into Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 until the end of this year. "I frankly find myself surprised about the demand for virtualization," says Steinman, who adds that he hardly goes into a customer account or hears of any other Novell representative where virtualization is not one of the big items that customers want to talk about. Right now, SLES 10 is able to support virtual instances of SLES 10 running inside the Xen hypervisor; within a few months, customers will be able to add in SLES 9 virtual instances, and in the fall, Novell will add support for Red Hat's Enterprise Linux 3 and 4. When Enterprise Linux 5 ships from Red Hat at the end of the year, Steinman said that the plan is to be able to run it inside Xen partitions controlled via the tools it created for SLES 10 as well. And, if customers have servers with either Intel's VT or AMD's AVT hardware-assisted virtualization electronics, they will be able to run Sun Microsystems' Solaris 10 or Microsoft's Windows on this integrated Xen hypervisor, too. And, Novell will support the whole shebang, and offer it for free as part of its normal support and through its existing licensing agreement with XenSource. (Novell is heavy contributor to the Xen project, and Steinman says that Novell has contributed four times as much code to the project as Red Hat--aimed mainly at making Xen more stable and enterprise-ready.)

Interestingly, Novell is not charging any extra money to use Xen or to cover the number of Linux instances that get run on a virtualized server. Red Hat is apparently thinking about trying to charge a premium for virtualized servers, but with Novell being virtual server agnostic with SLES 10 pricing and Microsoft distributing Virtual Server for free and allowing customers to run up to four copies of Windows for free, there is a limit to how much of a premium Red Hat can charge for virtualized Linuxes. "Red Hat is welcome to follow our lead," quipped Steinman.

Novell is also hoping that that SUSE customers do not mind that the JBoss middleware has been ripped out of the SLES 10 distribution. Novell had a relationship with JBoss to distribute its eponymous Java application server, but after Red Hat bought JBoss a few months ago, Novell decided to not make new business too easy for its rival. However, Novell is still offering the same support for JBoss middleware as it did prior to the acquisition, which means that just as always, you can pay to license JBoss and get tech support through Novell, which will offer Level 1 and Level 2 tech support and escalate to Red Hat for Level 3 support.

Steinman put the best face forward on the whole JBoss deal, which is part of his job. "We're all about choice. We put Geronimo into SLES 10, and customers can pick JBoss, WebLogic, WebSphere, or Fusion if they want it," he said, the latter three referring to the Web application servers from BEA Systems, IBM, and Oracle and the first being the open source Java application server. "Red Hat has told customers that it is JBoss or bust, and have irritated Oracle and IBM, their partners, while Novell is offering customers choices."

The other interesting thing about SLES 10 is that it now uses the Gnome interface, which was created by an open source project controlled by the formerly independent Ximian (acquired by Novell more than three years ago). You can use the KDE interface, of course, but the Gnome interface is more akin to Windows and MacOS (which is why I use it).

You can get SLES 10 now if you want to download it electronically. Novell's distributors are expected to be able to fulfill orders for boxed versions in two weeks or so, at least according to their Web sites. (I buy my SUSE Linux at CDW, which is retailing the basic license for $290, which is 17 percent off list price.)

Steinman says that Novell does not expect to roll out SLES 11 for about two years, which is consistent with the gap between SLES 8 and SLES 9. While some people were wondering out loud today if they should wait for Service Pack 1 for SLES 10 at the end of the year, Steinman said that the updates on the server side of the SUSE Linux distro due at that time would be minor. The biggest update coming in SP1 will be support for Xen in SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10, the corporate desktop implementation of the stack which currently does not support Xen.

So for the next two years, it will be all about SLES 10, and this is the product that Novell's new chief executive officer, Ron Hovsepian, has hitched his star--and perhaps the independent future of Novell--to. The issue now is whether or not there is pent-up demand for virtualized Linux that is priced the same on any server, regardless of size (excepting a mainframe, of course). "We're going to be much more aggressive about marking SLES 10, and the sales force is jazzed," says Steinman. That's a good second step, after delivering new technology ahead of a competitor to market.

This story has been updated since it originally ran. It was unclear if pricing on mainframes was based on a chassis, like on X64, Itanium, or Power boxes, or an engine. It turns out, SLES 10 licenses are based on engines with the mainframe, which means mainframe shops pay a lot more for SLES 10 than do other server users. [Updated 07/18/06]


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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Kevin Vandever,
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