SUSE Linux shops await Novell deal completion, clarity

Worries over Oracle, Apple patent participation in the Novell sale to Attachmate and CPTN Holdings have SUSE Linux shops and open source advocates spooked.

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Suse Linux shops are still anxiously awaiting completion of Attachmate’s buyout of Novell so they can get on with their lives.

The $2.2 billion deal was expected to close by the end of March but was delayed at least in part by regulatory issues over a side deal in which a Microsoft-led consortium was to buy some Novell patents.

The consortium, CPTN Holdings, which also includes EMC Corp., Apple Inc. and Oracle Corp., seeks nearly 900 Novell patents. CPTN re-registered in Germany last month after initial plans to create itself as a German entity were withdrawn in December. Novell has said that all Unix copyrights will stay with it after the deal.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) antitrust division postponed the sale until April 12, giving the DOJ time to review the deal. On Tuesday, Novell filed an 8-K with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)  saying that date had arrived "without action from the DOJ to enjoin the sale." But, Novell acknowledged that the sale of the patents could be challenged under Section 7 of the Clayton Act "prior to or after any closing of the patent sale.” The German antitrust investigation waiting period will expire on April 26.

In a twist, the prospect of Oracle and Apple ownership of these patents has set off more alarms among open source proponents than Microsoft’s participation.

Suse Linux FUD lives on until Novell deal is done
“The fact that there’s intellectual property that will go to Microsoft and others is a huge question mark,” said the IT manager of one SUSE Linux shop. “Microsoft did an older [patent] deal with Novell that did a lot of good things and muted some of the old Office suite wars [between Microsoft and Novell] but we don’t know what this new deal will do.”

This SUSE user and others want to know exactly what the consortium will acquire and whether its member companies will be able to assert those patents against their tech rivals. 

“The worst fear is that Microsoft will use this as a backdoor to do another SCO thing and I would bet that IBM and Red Hat are worried about that. These [consortium] guys are bigger than SCO and could cause a much bigger problem,” he noted.

SCO sued Novell claiming it owned Unix copyrights that Linux infringed. SCO, or the Santa Cruz Operation,  lost that battle after many years of litigation. Many viewed SCO as a stalking horse for Microsoft which had its own reasons to wound Linux. IBM and other vendors with an interest in Linux backed Novell.

Nigel Fortlage, vice president of IT for GHY International of Winnipeg, who runs a SUSE Linux shop is mostly unsettled by all the uncertainty.

“There’s been no clear messaging as to why this deal made sense. Why Attachmate?” he asked. Fortlage hopes the deal will be final soon so Attachmate can start talking about its plans. In the meantime, he is evaluating his options deploying different Debian versions with GHY workloads and seeing how they do.

GHY is an IBM Power shop and not a lot of Linux distributions support that architecture.

Gregory Rosenberg, CEO of RICIS, a Tinley Park, IL. IT consultant and reseller with a strong Linux focus, agreed that there is suspicion around the consortium’s motives.

He doesn’t, however, think the deal is necessarily bad for SUSE Linux. “My only concern is there are a lot of Microsoft haters out there and if, Microsoft and SUSE get in bed together, which is clearly happening more each day, there could be a mass exodus [to other Linux flavors.]”  Rosenberg said. About 70% of RICIS’ business is SUSE based, 30% is in the Red Hat camp.

Consortium queasiness
CPTN is slated to pay $450 million for the patents. Initially only Microsoft was identified as a consortium member. When it later became clear that EMC, Oracle and Apple were also involved, many Linux fans were not comforted. In fact, some said Oracle and Apple make Microsoft look like a Linux backer by contrast.

Oracle is suing Google over its use of Android and Apple CEO Steve Jobs has threatened to use software patents to squelch Theora and other open source codecs.

The Open Source Initiative has protested CPTN’s attempt to gain ownership of the Novell patents but OSI president Michael Tiemann this week said some adjustments to the deal defused concerns at least around Microsoft’s participation. Tiemann is also vice president of open source affairs for Red Hat, a direct competitor of Novell SUSE Linux.

The changes, on the other hand actually heighten the OSI’s “fears that Oracle is planning to do precisely what they should not, namely to create or strengthen a dominant position in the market as a result of this transaction,” according to an OSI posting.

The OSI has similar concerns about  Apple, which it said has a dominant position in mobile applications and platforms.

His group remains concerned that the deal will let companies that dominate certain markets will slash competition by asserting patents that “were once held in friendly [Novell] hands.”

OSI is now less concerned about Microsoft as a threat, given changes made to the deal which makes Microsoft’s “participation in this transaction largely unobjectionable.”  Because Microsoft will now take licenses to the patents without taking full ownership, it no longer becomes a greater threat to the open source community, according to OSI.

However, OSI asserted that Oracle, by virtue of its Sun and BEA Systems acquisitions, now dominates middleware and holds strong positions both in operating systems and virtualization. (Oracle detractors would certainly disagree on the last two points.)

Update: The CPTN companies have agreed to changes in the patent deal after antitrust concerns were raised by the DOJ.  

Site Editor Leah Rosin also contributed to this story. Let us know what you think about the story; email Barbara Darrow, Senior News Director at bdarrow@techtarget.com, or follow us on twitter.

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