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Chapter Four
Crossing the High Sierras

Tunneling through Granite

In January 1984, after a year of Ray’s management, Novell had still to overcome some major obstacles to growth. These obstacles—differentiating the product, creating hardware independence, establishing sales channels, winning support from independent software application developers, and obtaining capital—had loomed large before Novell since the earliest days.

To recall an image from the Old West, the job was like that faced by the Central Pacific Railroad in the early 1860s, as the company blasted tunnels through the granite peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, clearing the route for the western half of the nation’s first transcontinental railway. Compared to the Union Pacific, building across flat prairie, their progress looked glacial; but it was just as real.

Ray and his team had been chipping away at the barriers for a year with some effect and would continue to do so through 1984 and well into 1985, when the light appeared at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Until the obstacles were cleared the whole project remained too dicey for all but the most adventurous speculators to have any serious interest in.

We’re Different, and Much Better

One of the biggest obstacles to Novell’s growth was communicating how NetWare differed from the other LAN solutions in the market—and why that difference made NetWare better. There were perhaps 20 companies selling LAN systems besides Novell.

The key to differentiating NetWare was a semantic and conceptual distinction that Novell worked hard to get the marketplace to accept: File server vs. disk server. NetWare used a file server approach, Novell’s people said, while other LANs used a disk server approach. The file server approach was the superior technology and the wave of the future, Novell maintained, while the more traditional disk server solution contained inherent flaws that would ultimately make dinosaurs of LAN systems that utilized it.

As established in Chapter One (see “Disk Server versus File Server”), Novell’s claims were true. Let’s review why, in a little more technical detail.

A disk server chops up a shared hard disk into separate “volumes” so that each PC on the network has its own piece of the hard disk. Each PC manages its own directories and files in its volume. Some of the flaws in the disk server approach are:

Although disk server technology developed to the point where some of these flaws were overcome or compensated for, Novell argued that it was still an inherently inferior solution to the problem of managing LANs.

By contrast, NetWare’s file server technology relieved the networked PCs of all hard disk management responsibilities. The file server provided central control of data file management, improving security and the ability of different PCs on the LAN to share information in the same directory without interfering with each other. The file server approach, Novell maintained, was the more sophisticated approach, the more elegant solution, and a distinct technological advance—the first “milestone” in the history of local area networks. (In the earliest childhood of the company Novell employees had a sense they were making history.)

The problem was getting the marketplace to buy this distinction. Novell’s competitors claimed that their disk servers were file servers. If confronted with the technological differences, the competition claimed that their disk servers were simpler, more cost-effective, and more reliable than Novell’s file servers, and that in actual practice, most businesses would never need the advanced data sharing capabilities that NetWare claimed it could support.

Although SuperSet had articulated this distinction between disk server and file server as early as 1982, two years later they were still fighting to have the concept—and the terminology—understood and accepted.

Why Did Novell Develop File Server Technology?

Two historical accidents allowed Novell to be the first with file server technology. One was the long gestation period for the network operating system (NOS or just OS) that happened while Novell was undergoing the trauma of 1982. During the Time of Six Presidents discussed in Chapter Two above, as much as Novell wanted to launch the LAN quickly it was not in a position to do so. This gave the SuperSet people a chance to promote the merits of the file server concept within Novell before the OS design was frozen.

The second was that the Novell file server was equipped with the Motorola 68000–family processor rather than an Intel 80xx–family processor like that being used in most competitive machines. The Motorola chips of that era had more horsepower than comparable Intel chips so the server had more processing power. File server technology required more power than disk server technology so Marketing was behind this as another way of differentiating the Novell product.

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