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Hardware Independence

Mother Necessity Inspires Again

Hardware independence is a software’s ability to function with many kinds of hardware. In a general way, the idea of hardware independence had been around for a long time. That NetWare had it was a consequence of the file server model developed by SuperSet.

But the Novell that Ray bought into in 1983 was a systems manufacturing company—a company that produced primarily hardware with software bundled in, and pretty much all in a self-contained environment. Nearly all of the income in 1983 was from sales of the NetWare/S-Net system and related hardware components.

This was the fashion of the time. In the 1960s and ’70s, IBM and other computer manufacturers had established proprietary computer systems designed to lock in customers. They tried to be the single vendor for all the customer’s equipment, supply, and service needs. As the customer’s needs changed, the single vendor would lead him down well-established migration paths to bigger and better systems. Compatibility with other systems was discouraged.

This single-vendor model inherited from the mainframe and minicomputer worlds was the goal of virtually all of the early LAN companies; they all sought to provide a total solution to the customer’s needs.

Novell at the beginning of 1983 wasn’t a strong company, and it was just one of many companies offering proprietary LAN systems and networking products for personal computers. Novell offered a system that included a file server computer, network interface cards, cabling and connections, hard disk subsystems, and the NetWare Operating System. (Novell did not sell PC workstations.) As a manufacturer of yet another proprietary LAN, Novell faced an uphill battle against Corvus, whose Omninet already dominated the emerging LAN market of the early ’80s.

Whatever slim chance Novell had of carving a dominant niche in the hardware end of networking personal computers sank forever in 1982’s stormy sea of red ink and crisis.

Loading the Shotgun

In the course of doing business in 1983, Ray and his team soon realized that by limiting the sale of NetWare to LANs based on Novell file servers they were limiting the growth of the company. If NetWare was ever to become an industry standard, it would need the kind of mass distribution that could only be achieved through licensing: To gain the “critical mass” of installations, NetWare would have to be bundled with other LAN systems besides Novell’s S-Net system.

The choice was between “rifle shot” marketing, where NetWare would be carried to the market in a single slug (S-Net), and “shotgun” marketing, where NetWare would be carried to market in a shower of vehicles made by many hardware makers and marketers. To make a massive impact in a short time, Novell decided to load the shotgun.

Craig recalled how this vision came to him.

As soon as Ray joined the company, I was going to move from Marketing into Sales. Ray convinced me that I should stay and be Director of Marketing.

It was sometime in early 1983, I think, that the [IBM PC]XT was announced.

Drew and I both felt that the competitors were Corvus, Orchid, and a new company called 3Com. PC-Net [from Orchid Technologies] was probably growing faster than all of them at the time. Drew and I both thought the XT would be a terrific server and that we should start being as hardware-independent as we could—not drop the hardware yet, just become hardware-independent. Ray was supportive of it and allowed us to buy the equipment to do that.

One of the questions we were struggling with at the time was: What network [system] should this hardware-independent version of NetWare run on? We hadn’t come up with being network–hardware independent, we’d only come up with targeting NetWare on the XT.

The question kept coming up that we needed to pick a medium to run on. Should we build a product that’s compatible with the Novell 68000 box or should we find someone else’s network adapter? The choices we were struggling with were: Should we do Corvus? Should we do 3Com Ethernet? Should we do Orchid PC-Net? Should we do ARCnet? Those were the four big choices at the time. Or should we do our own?

I sat down and listed all the companies that were these companies’ vendors—Orchid had the biggest list, I think 3Com was next. The other thing was that Ray was a big investor in this company in southern California called Gateway Communications and they had yet another network called G-Net with no network operating system on it. Because Gateway was willing to cooperate with Novell at the time, that was the first we started working on.

But I can remember very clearly when I finally came up with the answer in my head about which network we should support. And the answer was: All of them!

I was driving to the airport and I pulled over and drew a box that had all these different network cards in it and all the companies that were supporting the networks attached to them. So it had an Omninet, an Ethernet, and an ARCnet line, and a G-Net, but there was no one but us at that time.

I took it back to Drew and said, “I want this box. I want an XT to have all these cards in it and have them look the same.”

He said, “I can’t do it.” (Of course, several years later, he did.)

I said, “Well, okay, we’ll pretend like we did.” [So for the time being there had to be a different box—a different file server—for each network brand.]

We went out and started creating. I think that was the other major event that caused a significant turn in the mentality of the company. Coming up with the notion that all of the hardware, including the server and the network adapter, was irrelevant to us. That we would do all of them.

We had a lot of resistance to that at the company.

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