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The Triumph and Tragedy of Ray Noorda

January 2nd, 2005 · No Comments

Over my years as a computer journalist, I’ve met pretty much everyone who’s anyone in the technology business. Very few of the big names have really impressed me, though. Among those who I’ve thought were really something special have been Steve Jobs of Apple, Linus Torvalds of Linux and, oh yes, Ray Noorda of Novell.

Unlike those others, Noorda wasn’t technically brilliant. He was just a hard-headed, hard-working businessman who made things happen. I admired his work ethic and his willingness to do what was right by his lights.

Sometimes that meant fighting the good fight against Microsoft, which he saw as potentially totally dominating the desktop long before everyone else did. And sometimes that meant making peace.

For example, after Novell bought Unix and USL (Unix Systems Laboratories) from AT&T, rather than continue to fight with BSDI (Berkeley Software Design Inc.) over possible Unix intellectual property rights violations in BSD/OS, an early, commercial BSD Unix, Noorda famously declared that he’d rather compete in the marketplace than in court, and the two sides settled peacefully.

Noorda also took Novell Data Systems and turned it into the LAN company of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Along the way, Noorda also shaped the modern reseller world.

It was Noorda who came up with the three-tiered approach to resellers that so many companies now use. It was Noorda who decided that training and certification were the best ways to make sure that his partners could support Novell’s products. In turn, those early Novell resellers used Novell’s CNE (Certified NetWare Engineer) to market their wares and services so successfully that every major vendor has a certification program for its partners.

If you use any certification to get a job or to sell your services, you owe a debt to Ray Noorda.

Thus, it’s with a heavy heart that I see that Noorda’s investment company, The Canopy Group, parent company of SCO, and many others involved in a civil war. It appears that an old-fashioned power struggle has developed between Noorda’s hand-picked executives, some of his family and some Canopy associates.

I don’t know the details of the fight. No one outside of the Canopy family does.

But I do know that Canopy, which is a privately held venture capital firm, almost certainly has more than $1 billion in assets. It doesn’t take a genius to see how people could fight over it.

It also doesn’t help any that Canopy’s internal structure is a Byzantine complex of, at one time, more than two dozen companies. These companies frequently share resources and officers and invest in each other.

For example, in late 2000, SCO (then Caldera) formed a partnership with EBIZ Enterprises, a Texas-based company in which Canopy held a controlling interest, to create a B2B (business-to-business) marketplace company called PartnerAxis. The company was designed to link Linux solution providers with resellers. PartnerAxis, in turn, was funded by Canopy.

I’m no accountant, but I have followed several of the Canopy-related companies, such as SCO and Novell, for more than a decade … and I can’t make heads or tails of Canopy’s internal structures. If you want to give it a try, the TWkiIWeThey site, with its listings of Canopy officials and companies, is your best place to start.

Novell, I should add, isn’t part of Canopy anymore. Noorda and Canopy largely divested themselves of Novell stock back in 1996.

In part, that was because—oh, the irony of it all—Noorda believed that Linux was the future, while Novell, now under Bob Frankenberg, killed off its internal Linux skunks work project. Soon thereafter, Noorda cut off his ties with Novell and via Canopy bankrolled Caldera Systems, one of the first Linux companies.

Over time, though, Ray’s health and memory have continued to fail. And meanwhile, Caldera, now renamed SCO, has turned against Linux and Novell has now embraced Linux with open arms. Oh the irony!

Were Ray, who is 80 now, in better shape, I’m sure that we would never have seen SCO sue IBM and launch its attack against Linux. Instead, we would have seen Novell acquire SCO, rather than SuSE, to make its Linux play. And we certainly wouldn’t see what promises to be a long, nasty fight for control over Canopy.

So it is that today I sit in my office, and I’m very sorry indeed that Ray’s legacy has come to this.

Still, in the larger sense, his legacy still goes on. Regardless of what happens to the companies he founded, he, just as much as Scott McNealy of Sun and John Chambers of Cisco, helped create the networked world we live in now, And more so than anyone else, he created the modern reseller and integrator world from which so many of us make our living.

A version of this story first appeared in Channel Insider.

Tags: Business · Linux · Novell · Operating System · SCO · Unix