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 Strominator.com or send me emails with permission to post your thoughts.