Remembering Ray Noorda

Ray Noorda died earlier this week and many of you have sent me notes about his passing. He had a profound influence on many of us in the networking industry and was behind many of the technologies and trends that we now take for granted. As a member of my parents’ generation, he was a father figure and mentor to me and many others.

Noorda ran Novell during its glory years of the early 1980/90s. The Novell of yesteryear bears little resemblance to the present company. It began operations in a small Utah suburb located a few miles from the campus of Brigham Young University, and pulled much of its programming talent from the students at the computer science department there. For those of you that have never been to Provo, it is an odd place to start a high-tech company. Provo is dominated by a wall of mountains to the east and rolling hills to the west. Salt Lake City is about an hour up the freeway, past a prison and a bioweapons campus. Until Novell got going, there wasn’t much in high-tech around. Nowadays, the area is filled with former Novell engineers and staffers who have started hundreds of companies, some of which were funded by a private VC firm that Noorda set up with his Novell-created wealth. Intel had a huge presence there, and many others opened up offices to take advantage of the talent that came to the area.

I met Ray several times, and my career in networking was deeply involved with Novell for many years, as sources for my stories, products that I tested and wrote about, clients for my consulting business, and just friends that I made with the many fine people that worked there.

During Ray’s tenure, Novell owned Unix for a period of time, was the first company to get serious about TCP/IP networking, built the first dedicated PC file servers that were any good, made Ethernet networking cards into a solid commercial business, created the first extensive channel program for networking integrators, sold the first PC database servers that could be easily extended, moved network servers into the datacenter, sold integrated email servers, developed the first usable directory service, and many, many more innovations that now seem so ordinary and business-as-usual. They often had a handle on technologies before any of us really knew what to do with them. I am sure that I am forgetting about a few other things here and there.

If you look at this collection of technologies, it is an impressive list. Many of us learned about networking as Novell brought out new software and services, and went through the certifications on Novell products – certifications that were once worth something: and difficult to obtain, requiring more than just paper knowledge and protocols. I covered numerous product launches as a journalist and they were always fun because you could usually get some Novell executive to open up and give you some colorful background. One of these briefings was held at an exclusive ski lodge in the nearby mountains, which was lost on me because I don’t ski but still was a fun place to go. My first taste of Sundance was through many events that Novell held there, too.

I remember my visit to Japan to introduce that country to its version of PC Week. The visit coincided with Novell’s own Japanese launch and I surprised several American executives when my byline for that event appeared in PC Week. Our first networking shootout for PC Week between Ethernet, Arcnet, and Token Ring cemented many relationships with the parties involved in that test. We got Novell to fix the poorly performing Token Ring drivers, not that anyone cares today about Token Ring or Arcnet for that matter.

Novell stories figured prominently in those first issues of Network Computing, a magazine that I created with plenty of support from Novell in 1990 and is still publishing today. When I first opened up shop as a consultant, one of the first things I did was put a Netware server in the Guggenheim Museum to test products for Intel. I think it was a 386. And while I still have my Netware software discs, I don’t think I could set up a server without a lot of work.

Novell was the first to take advantage of the protected mode of 286 chips, beating IBM’s OS/2 to the punch by a few years. It was this file server that I installed at Transamerica Occidental Life back in the mid 1980s, which was the first LAN to be installed there, despite IBM trying to get us to use their crummy attempts. Thus began my own networking career in IT and then into journalism, where I have covered networking topics ever since.

One of my favorite conference speaking sessions was one Interop where I sat down with Drew Major, the principal architect of Netware, for an hour in front of an audience and just had a great talk about the past, present and future of networking. Drew was the real deal and for many of us the soul of networking. At one point, Interop was combined with Networld, Novell’s annual partner conference.

Ray was far from a perfect leader. His biggest weakness was miscalculating Microsoft’s rapid adoption of many of his principle network ideas into Windows 95. Windows 95 was the first Microsoft OS to incorporate a Netware client as part of the OS, and the beginning of the end for Netware. His biggest mistake was buying Word Perfect, another Utah company that fed off local talent, but bled Novell dry and took it away from its core networking competence. He had plenty of hubris when it came to protecting his intellectual property, and many of the almost comical events surrounding Caldera’s Unix lawsuits can be traced to his early litigation with Microsoft on PC DOS.

Today’s Novell is a shadow of its former self. No one cares about Netware anymore, although it is still in use here and there. Its vast and powerful reseller base is in shambles. They are still involved in Unix, having bought SUSE a few years ago. They still sell a directory service, and it still has features that are lacking in Microsoft’s Active Directory, not that anyone thinks about this either. They moved their HQ across the country.

Ray, thanks for taking this young pup for such a great ride in our industry. Those of you that would like to post your own comments and tributes to him, please go to my blog at or send me emails with permission to post your thoughts.

0 thoughts on “Remembering Ray Noorda

  1. This reminded me of the days that I spent traveling frequently to Provo. I can recall the trips to Sundance, working in Novell’s “SuperLab”, and attending BrainShare. All items (at the time) that would be hard to compare in today’s world. Thanks for the memories…

  2. Two interesting social network products Novell pioneered that no one remembers: LAN e-mail, and Instant Messaging. In Advanced NetWare 4.16a (the first version I worked with) you could send e-mail to users on the same server, and IM using the SEND command. This was about 1986.

  3. Ray Norda was a pioneer in our industry. I consulted for WordPerfect, Novell, and Ray’s VC company, Canopy (as well as some of his startups) and found him to be a tough but insightful leader.

    I felt great sadness that Novell was not able to make the conversion as shifts occurred in the industry, away from a separate network operating system. Trying to be the gatekeeper for UNIX, for example, and trying to compete with Microsoft by acquiring WordPerfect, were simply bad ideas.

    On the other hand, Ray invested in many technologies way ahead of their mainstread adoption, and that kind of risk-taking, backed up by industry knowledge, is what makes for his fascinating history.

  4. The thing that stands out in my mind is what a great host he was for me and many others that came a long way to work with Novell in the early days. Just one instance can point that out.

    During the days when the Proteon Token Ring (10 Mbps) was getting started, Ray caught on the the advantages Token Ring had over CSMA/CD, notably the ordered access to the medium. This made it much faster under loaded network conditions.

    I was out in Provo to help Drew Kyle and the rest of the Engineering team (about 5 people) get drivers working for the ProNet-10. I had to spend the weekend out there to finish the work the next week for a big show in Atlanta.

    I did not have a car and was doing rentals on Proteon’s dime during the week. Ray offered to let me have his “Truck” for the weekend so I would not have to foot the bill myself in order to go skiing up at Alta. I couldn’t believe that someone was that hospitable! He was a super talent and superbly sensitive to the people that worked for/with him.

    I was saddened to hear of his passing. I will miss him even ‘tho I have not seen him for many years. I will remember him for the great intuitive talent he was in steering Novell to greatness. He had the greatest respect for those that gave their all to help like Drew and Kyle and others.


  5. I am a co-founder of Banyan Systems and competed with Novell in the early days of networking. A few years later after Banyan, I had moved to California and was meeting one of Novell’s executives at Hobees’ for breakfast and noticed that Ray was at another table. He came by and greeted us and also recognized me as one of Banyan’s founders. As he paid his bill, I noticed that he bought some food items. Sure enough, he came over to our table gave each one of us a packet of granola and wished us good luck. I always thought this was simple gesture of friendship and goodwill.

  6. What a fitting tribute. What you wrote feels so “personal” because you can speak to the events with first-hand knowledge. My introduction to Novell, was not as an IT person, but as a consultant at Regis McKenna Inc. My “supervisor” at the time was the lead on the Novell account and that’s how I wound up, for the most part, becoming involved with networking clients. Looking back, I’m glad it worked out that way. Networking has certainly been, and continues to be, a vibrant, innovative category through all the years I’ve been consulting with high tech clients…and, you’re right, thanks in large part to Ray Noorda. Here I am, 15+ years and many clients later realizing that I still naturally gravitate to clients who offer networking services and products. — Joan Naidish

  7. An interesting stroll down memory lane. As you know, I also cut my teeth on Novell, NetWare 4.61 for the TI Professional Computer! I also installed the first Ethernet network in my organization years ago, with 3Com NIC’s costing $895 each. If memory serves me correctly, it was Noorda who got Novell selling Ethernet NICs for $199 each. The industry wondered how could he possibly sell them that cheap, but Ray understood that selling cheap NICs would help the company sell more NetWare.

    You neglected to mention that Ray was actually the VC rescuer of Novell. Drew and crew had done their thing, building the first PC server, but they couldn’t make money. Rumor has it that they were selling the furniture to make payroll when Ray rode in on his horse to save them.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention your presentation to the Novell Technology Transfer Partners conference in North Carolina, maybe ’92?. I’m not sure whether that was Ray’s idea or not, but TTP brought lots of Universities together working towards common technology goals.

    Last point. I think you give Novell way too much credit for TCP/IP. My recollection of the situation is that Novell came to TCP/IP kicking and screaming. They wanted IPX to be the true network standard and they argued at length about how superior it was to TCP/IP. Their first TCP/IP gateays products were crude hacks. It took them a long time to fully embrace TCP/IP and I’d be willing to bet that the majority of currently-installed Netware servers are currently running IPX.

    But your bottom line is correct. Ray had a significant impact on the industry in many ways. — Dave Molta, Syracuse University and Network Computing magazine

  8. Novell came to TCP/IP with pocketbooks open – their purchase of Excelan Systems (and it’s LAN Workplace line) put IP networking onto more Intel desktops than anyone pre-Win95. It also got Uncle Ray the travelling companion he needed in Kanwal Rekhi, who actually seemed to thoroughly enjoy both Ray’s dry wit and his sometimes unbelievable mental blocks.

    And don’t forget that it was Ray, via Judith Clarke, who gave us LAN Times – the beginning (or the beginning once removed) of many of our network journalism careers…


  9. I was/am one of the first Novell trainers. My first Novell install was on S-Net, Novell’s only hardware server, and have had the opportunity many times over the years to hear Ray Norda’s presentations. Two of the quotes I found most prophetic, “What is good for the networking industry is good for Novell.” and “people respond to change in three basic ways. Some avoid it – they last for 3 seconds. Some adapt to it – they last for 3 months. Other create it – they last for 3 years.”
    I like many others who posted here thank Ray for the help he and his company gave to starting my technical career.
    don dilley

  10. Wow the days at Novell in San Jose 1991 (Fortune Drive)right in the middle supporting Netware 3.11, LAN Workplace For DOS and other Novell applications for the programmers. Novell was on fire and I became a CNE while working there. What an ACE in the hole The word was Ray Noorda….
    Phillip Kahn in Scotts Valley (Borland)
    Bill Gates (Redmond)

    Oh how I miss those days…..

  11. We knew Ray back in the 60’s when he was the head of GE’s Controls Division. My product line at Universal Instrumants, PC Ass’y N/C Instertion machines, was GE’s largest single customer, # of units.

    We had been working on the first integrated CNC design for about 2 years and Ray quoted us, but GW
    E’s quote and repetative cost was way to high.

    We found General Automation in Anahiem and we released the contract to them. The rest ius history, in 6 months we introduced a prototype CNC machine at the Nepcon show in Anahiem. Soon Ray Noorda left GE and became the President of General Automation.

    About that time I had been working on a revolutionary idea for a “WorkGroup” of machines with a central database and supervisory consol. With a year the first, yes the first, Network was born and shipped to Western Electric Oklahoma City. Client/Server &/or Peer to peer architecture
    was born, in 1971 not in 1973 at PARC!

    A short time thereafter Ray left Computer Automation and disappeared in the Salt Lake area. After several years a little company sprung up called Novell, think it was different to start with.

    Ray was a fine man of the highest integrity and great industry leader.

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