SUSE against the tide
SuSE was founded in Nuremberg, Germany in 1992 when the Linux kernel was still almost new. by Hubert Mantel, Burchard Steinbild, Roland Dyroff and Thomas Fehr, with the objective of distributing Slackware (based on the earlier SLS Linux from Soft Landing Systems), in sets of 40 floppies, translated into German, with the approval of Patrik Volkerding, the guiding light and sole developer of Slackware.
The SuSE organisation began life as Gesellschaft für Software-und Systementwicklung mbH, which later became Software und System Entwicklung (Software and System Development), from which sprang the friendly acronym SuSE. SuSE's own distinctive version of Linux came into being with the absorption of Florian LaRoche’s Jurix Linux and the development of the SuSE installer YaST in 1995, and but for a mild stutter after the collapse of the NASDAQ, has never looked back since. SuSE became the favoured distribution of Linux in Germany, and Germany was the country with the fastest uptake of Linux in Europe. By the late 90s SuSE had opened offices in the UK, Italy, the Czech Republic, and the United States, and was second only to Red Hat in popularity among the growing community of Linux users.
Quick, not slick
There was always something endearing about SuSE Linux. Maybe it was the artless lizard (or is it a chameleon?) that is the SuSE logo, mascot, and general good luck charm that goes by name of ‘Geeko’, earnest and likeable with a kink in its tail, but definitely not slick. SuSE was always more businesslike and thorough than stylish in its choices, although this gave it a distinctive style of its own, unadorned and utilitarian, like the Lloyds building, where all the mechanical parts, pipes, lifts and escalators are visible on the outside wall.
Maybe it was that, even in the latter years of its independence, even a minimum install of a home version of SuSE Linux always entailed crouching over your CD-ROM drive waiting to eject and load an endless succession of CDs, as if the SuSE engineers were nostalgic for the good old days when a Linux installation came on a large pile of floppies. And however bare and tidy you thought your desktop was, one of those disks had always gone missing...
Or maybe it was that SuSE was Linux with a girl's name, although the correct pronounciation was something closer to a Brummie saying “buzzer”, (think Ozzie Osbourne), or an Ulsterman saying “user”, or as in Sousa, the late 19th century composer of music for marching bands, the Wurlitzer and the fairground.
Or maybe it’s because SuSE Linux always came with endless options that you could easily tailor and configure to your own particular preferences. What was truly impressive about most things SuSE was the thoroughness and attention to detail. If you weren't happy with one way of doing things SuSE provided you with the possibility of at least three other ways to get there. Just fire up YaST, throw in a CD, and there it was - with a message entreating you to "Have fun".
Or maybe it was that from the beginning, the manual, like the logo, was so compelling, hundreds of pages filled with hard facts covering areas of Linux that the light had never seen before, and then they gave you more. Old SuSE manuals are still a perfect resource for finding your way around your system when there is some command that you have lost or forgotten.
On the downside, SuSE, unlike other popular distributions of GNU/Linux, didn't provide a freely downloadable version. This was because SuSE included proprietary add-ons, and YaST, SuSE's install manager, did not come with a free software license. SuSE could only be bought in a box, which went against the spirit, if not the law, of the emergent Linux community. But SuSE escaped the sanctions that others encountered, because it always gave back to the community.
This little piggy
As for all Linux distributions, things changed for SuSE during the dotcom boom of the late nineties. Linux was the obvious choice for startups, and SuSE came close behind Red Hat as the most popular commercial implementation of Linux. SuSE was liked for its thoroughness and dependability - and its lustre gained a bit of lick and polish with every new release.
SuSE employed kernel developers, such as Andrea Arcangeli, Andreas Jaeger and Dave Jones, and made key contributions to all sides of GNU/Linux, including the KDE and GNOME desktops, and the less romantic aspects of server and driver support. SuSE was adopted by IBM as one of three versions of GNU/Linux favoured for its smorgasbord of Linux server systems. The others were Red Hat Linux and TurboLinux. TurboLinux was adopted by IBM because of its popularity in the Far East, and SuSE for its popularity in Europe. The omission of Caldera may have been a factor in SCO's later march into litigation against IBM - although rational explanations are not always easy to come by when trying to fathom the reasons for SCO's ineluctable enthusiasm for the law - a predilection which brought it nothing but embarrassment, reversal and pain.
Like Red Hat and Caldera, SuSE was rumoured to be in desperate need of an IPO or a friendly investor to fund its growth into the enterprise market. Red Hat was valued at an extraordinary $6 billion on its IPO, and Caldera (later to become The SCO Group) at a less fulsome $1 billion. The dotcom boom gave rise to many popular delusions. Every upstart company that had dotcom at the end of its name had money thrown at it. The NASDAQ provided an example that the god of markets has no monopoly on wisdom, benificence or common sense, and when the crunch came, collapsed, taking many hopes with it.
The capital moment for SuSE had passed. But three years later everything changed. Novell, the network company of the 80s, jumped in and bought the company, assisted by a loan from IBM.
A new beginning
Since its heyday in the 80s Novell had fallen into a relatively sedate and gentle decline. There had been a couple of bumps - the gesture towards becoming a Unix company in the early 90s, the failure to compete for developers with Windows NT, and the strange acquisition and subsequent offloading, for a fraction of the cost price, of WordPerfect. Novell held onto a diminishing market, primarily in the public sector, still a billion dollar company, but a shadow of its former self. Novell had been there, climbed the mountain and come down the other side, and was beginning to struggle. Linux was seen as an opportunity for Novell to re-invent itself as a young and energetic "open source" company with a new platform for its expertise in networking technologies.
Novell's interest in Linux began with the purchase of Ximian in 2003. Some three months after the purchase of Ximian, Novell purchased SuSE. This was an eventful year for Novell and for Linux. During the summer The SCO Group initated its slightly farcical and utlimately fateful raid on the ownership and authorship of Linux. The code of GNU/Linux, SCO claimed, had been stolen from UNIX, (the rights to which SCO claimed to own), by IBM and others. SCO's claims were based on its purchase of certain rights to UNIX from Novell, which in turn had purchased the rights from AT&T.
Almost immediately there was an unexpected and impassioned intervention on IBM's behalf from Novell's (then) CEO, Jack Messman.
Messman, in the words of Novell's press release, "challenged SCO's assertion that it owns the copyrights and patents to UNIX System V, pointing out that the asset purchase agreement entered into between Novell and SCO in 1995 did not transfer these rights to SCO", and demanded that SCO produce "facts to back up its assertion that certain UNIX System V code has been copied into Linux."
Thus began the long dissolution of SCO's claims to the ownership of Linux.
Wake up, little Suse
Novell's purchase of SuSE paid immediate marketing dividends. Novell, which had been, for so long, so far behind the times, could now legitimately claim to be ahead of the times. Linux was the new hope for many parts of the computer industry, and Novell was up there, in the driver's cab, pulling the industry behind.
The revolution began in earnest. SuSE was rebranded Novell SUSE (in capital letters). YaST, the SUSE installer, was released under a free software license. SUSE Linux was made available in three different forms, openSUSE, a freely downloadable bleeding edge community distribution (which was a first for SUSE), SLES (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server) and SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop). OpenSUSE parallels the Red Hat supported Fedora distribution, and SLES and SLED are sold with enterprise support. Considerable energies were devoted to making Linux commercially acceptable, with significant contributions to GNOME, KDE, device driver support, OpenOffice and virtualisation.
Linux didn't bring immediate financial reward to Novell, but the Linux share of the market has grown rapidly, and there have been significant gains for Novell SUSE, not least of which was the remarkable (and under-reported) win of 20,000 Linux desktops and 2500 servers at Peugeot/Citreon, which is still the largest deployment of the Linux desktop, and, many believe, just the first of many.
A backward step
At the same time, Novell has played a major part in the legal actions between SCO and IBM, in support of IBM's case, and as a key distributor of Linux, but the 2006 patent and licensing agreement between Novell and Microsoft, which followed Messman's replacement as CEO of Novell has obscured much of this, and has clouded the issues.
To casual observers the Microsoft/Novell deal, which includes interoperability and patent indemnification agreements, may seem standard fare for the industry. But it has far greater significance for the Linux and free software community because of the hostage to fortune it offers in the shape of patent indemnity, and the appearance of credibility it has leant to Microsoft's often re-iterated, never substantiated, and highly contentious, claims of patent infringements in the Linux kernel. (It also conflicts with the terms of the latest version of the GPL).
"...The surprising aspect of the Microsoft/Novell agreement is that Novell was foolish enough to fall into the trap that Microsoft set for it, to induce somebody involved with Linux to take a license, so that Steve Ballmer could then go off to the press, and say 'See I told you there were concerns. Why else would they have taken this license?'" Mark Webbink, then the legal counsel for Red Hat, said at the time.
This matters, not just because of the material disadvantage the agreement has given to future disputes involving free and open source software, but because it suggests that short term corporate advantage is more important to Novell than the wishes of the larger community of users and developers that have made the product possible in the first place.
Just as surprising as the agreement itself was the enthusiastic participation and defence of the agreement by the developers Novell inherited from Ximian. This enthusiasm was not unconnected to Ximian's committment to Mono, its own free software implementation of the .Net framework, (which is heavily implicated in future GNOME development), and the fear of many that parts of the Mono implementation may turn out to be patent encumbered, or that support will be compromised in other ways. The participation of Novell's corporate wonks in such an agreement could feasibly be excused on the grounds of ignorance or indifference. It is perhaps less easy to understand the enthusiasm of the participating free software developers.
Novell claims that the agreement has brought significant advantages to Linux and Novell, which is beginning to show healthy returns on its Linux business. It may also have brought significant damage to SUSE's long term place in the affections of the community...