Ray Noorda: The man who lost the LAN

Ray Noorda, best known for founding Novell, inventing the local-area network industry and then losing the LAN industry to Microsoft, died today.

I only met Noorda a few times, in the last years of his tenure with Novell, and never had much personal interaction with him (the meetings were all at industry-related events), so I don’t have much sense of the man. It always struck me as a shame that he had the vision to create the LAN industry, but that his product (NetWare) lost to a product that was considerably inferior in performance and stability (Windows NT Server). However, he missed three factors which made NetWare’s demise inevitable.

First, NetWare was a fantastically complex product that required extensive administrative training. In most cases, NetWare needed to be installed and maintained by a trained Novell reseller. As LANs became more popular, small and medium-sized companies didn’t want to deal with a Novell Authorized Reseller, many of whom did a lousy job and overcharged for their services. Instead, customers wanted to set up and manage their LANs themselves, or use less-expensive consultants. Novell didn’t make that possible until it was too late. Windows NT, on the other hand, was slow, unstable, but easy to manage. It was also less expensive, and simpler to license, than the channel-centric NetWare.

Second, it was really hard for customers or ISVs to extend NetWare through NetWare Loadable Modules. It seemed that Novell did everything possible to discourage the development of new applications using NLMs. Microsoft, on the other hand, embraced all developers and welcomed third-party applications running on top of Windows NT Server. Those developers became Microsoft’s biggest evangelists.

Third, Novell stuck with IPX/SPX for far too long. When it finally adopted TCP/IP, it did a lousy job. Novell didn’t take TCP/IP seriously until 1998, by which point Microsoft had already won the war.

So, while Certified NetWare Engineers loved their NOS, new customers went to Windows instead. Novell never recovered. Noorda’s many attempts to compete against Microsoft in other areas, such his alternative to the Microsoft Office suite, were not succesful. For many years, through the late 1990s, the company exhibited a reactive, deer-in-the-headlights mentality that precluded creativity.

Bill Gates focused on growing the computer industry, and thereby enriching Microsoft. Toward the end, Noorda’s Novell fixated on attacking Microsoft instead of creating new market opportunities.

>> Update: I received an e-mail which stated:

“To criticize Mr. Noorda upon his death is outrageous! Like the political jerks that permeate our society today, your comments are thoughtless, coarse, and disrespectful. This man pioneered an industry for which your paycheck derives from. Your inability, or unwillingness, to write about the “good” Ray Noorda has done says more about you than Mr. Noorda.”

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick