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Dell plan aids Novell effort with Microsoft

Linux, Windows will both work on servers

The controversial alliance between Microsoft Corp. and Linux software vendor Novell Inc. has a new member: computer maker Dell Inc.

Dell will disclose today that it will team up with Novell and Microsoft to distribute Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server software (SLES) along with Microsoft's Windows Server software. Both Windows Server and SLES control powerful computer systems that host many crucial business activities, from order processing to company websites. As part of the deal, Dell will help Novell and Microsoft make SLES and Windows work together efficiently on Dell's computer hardware.

"We send in engineers . . . helping them actually put together the solutions to deploy," said Rick Becker, vice president of solutions at Dell.

The deal provides more evidence that the Novell-Microsoft alliance launched last year is opening doors for Novell. "Novell's been having this near-death experience for a while," said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates Inc. in Wayland.

Novell, which moved its headquarters to Massachusetts in 2004, was once the world's third-biggest software company, after IBM and Microsoft. In recent years, Novell has struggled to become a major vendor of the Linux operating system, which has become a major rival of Microsoft Windows on server computers. According to research from IDC Corp. in Framingham, companies worldwide bought $6.27 billion worth of Linux servers last year. But Novell is a distant second in Linux software sales to market leader Red Hat Inc.

Under the alliance with Microsoft, the two companies are working together on "virtualization" software to let Windows machines run Novell SLES and vice versa. In addition, Microsoft purchased thousands of licenses for Novell SLES and is marketing them to Microsoft customers who want to run a mixture of Microsoft Windows and Linux server soft ware.

Novell also agreed to compensate Microsoft for Linux software features that Microsoft claims to have patented. This aspect of the alliance enraged other groups involved in Linux and open source software projects. They say that open source code like Linux, available to all at no charge in its raw form, contains no Microsoft code. Critics charged that Novell's payment to Microsoft tacitly conceded Microsoft's claims of patent violations, and could help Microsoft sue other open source companies. Novell officials, however, denied that the payment constituted an admission that Linux contains illegal portions of Microsoft code.

In any event, the Novell-Microsoft deal ensures that users of Novell Linux are safe from Microsoft patent infringement lawsuits. Dell's Becker said that was a key reason his company wanted to join the alliance. "There's many aspects of open source that delight my customers," Becker said, but "they have concerns . . . about software licensing. . . . Those concerns go away when they deploy Microsoft and SLES Linux."

Michael Goulde, senior analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, said the deal shows that Dell hopes to use Linux-Windows interoperability to differentiate itself from rival computer firms like Hewlett-Packard Co. "The problem that Dell has had is that their stuff is completely interchangeable" with products from other computer makers, said Goulde. "They really want to have more leverage in customer accounts."

Kay noted that Dell has recently shown greater willingness to break from its traditional business tactics. Last year, for example, Dell started selling desktop computers using processor chips from Advanced Micro Devices Inc., ending its exclusive relationship with Intel Corp. And Dell chief executive Michael Dell hinted recently that the company may modify its exclusive direct-sales model, and begin offering its computers through other channels, such as distributors or retailers.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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