back to article How the clammy claws of Novell NetWare were torn from today's networks

Before the internet, local area networks were the big thing. A company called Novell was the first to exploit the trend for connecting systems, ultimately becoming "the LAN king" with its NetWare server operating system. There were alternatives to Novell and NetWare in the 1990s - 3Com’s 3+Share, for example – but such was its …


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  1. Anonymous Coward

    Don't forget X

    Its not only NDS which b0rk the Netware experience I think, it's also the somewhat flakey way it operated.

    Netware 4 finally allowed you to manage your users from the server console, instead of the 3.11 way of demanding that the server would only be able to manage the server, and as soon as you needed to manage the user accounts you just had to find a client and logon.

    I always considered that a major flaw; even more so when a friend and me tried to gain 'super' rights on a school network and his "super" program tried to logon as super approximately 4000 times with a wrong password. Effectively locking out an enraged administrator who didn't have a backup account and could now no longer logon for the following 48 hours.

    But the thing is, if memory serves me right you needed X to do it. Netware had embraced X on the server, something which immediately struck me as odd because wasn't that Linux terrain? So if Novell deemed X usage worthy, then surely there had to be much more to that Linux stuff then we realized so far...

    I think that also opened up a lot of eyes. Because although many people knew what Linux could be capable of at that time, it wasn't exactly as popular as it is now. And here you had a major network company actually using "Linux components".

    1. John Deeb

      Re: Don't forget X

      ShelLuser, you sound terribly confused on the matter. Memory didn't serve you right. Re-install :-)

    2. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      Re: Don't forget X

      I have no knowledge of Netware myself, but if you are talking X11, then it's UNIX, not Linux. Linux had X11 servers and clients (of course), but X11's home was UNIX (and to an extent, some proprietary OS's like VMS).

      If it was X11, then what it gave you was the ability to run the GUI administration client programs remotely on any workstation with an X11 server (if you are unfamiliar with it, the server controlled the screen, keyboard and mouse, and programs that attached to this X11 server were clients, wherever they ran), meaning that you would have the ability to remotely administer the Netware server, long before RDP, VNC, or Citrix were on the scene.

      X11 servers were available for UNIX and Linux workstations, OS/2 and even Windows NT and later systems, as well as thin clients from people like NCD and Tektronix, so there were a wide variety of workstations that you would have been able to use.

      People tend to forget what an enabler X11 was.

    3. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: Don't forget X

      Shoot, you could have used one of the many security holes to gain superuser. For example, to be able to access files to print them, the print server had an "assume privs of client" call for any file it was printing.

      Thus you could wait for a superuser to queue up a print job, declare yourself a print server, service the print job, call "assume privs of client" thus becoming superuser, assign yourself the superuser priv, then say you couldn't service the print job after all so it would be released back to the queue and a real print server would deal with it.

      Another fun one was the fact that server processes running on workstations (such as print servers) would automatically be added to the bindery when they broadcast their ability to serve jobs of type $FOO. This was all fine'n'dandy until you wrote a server of type "user" at which point you were inserted into the bindery of all the servers and showed up in the admin app as a user. You didn't have a password property so you couldn't log in, but the admins would wet their pants at seeing a new unauthorized "user"

    4. cosmo the enlightened

      Re: Don't forget X

      From the console, you could do the magic six finger (or in my case five finger plus nose) keystroke and enter debug on a live server. Great days, and great fun

      ... and old CNE who dreams of past times!

  2. Dr Who

    The real king of networking

    No mention of Banyan Vines and its legendary StreetTalk directory services. Light years ahead of its time although a bit overkill for very small businesses. Multi-site, native WAN connections via dedicated routing cards, and host of other features made it scale with ease which is why any large business building a serious enterprise wide network was using it.

    Banyan's supreme achievement however was the utter crapness of their sales and marketing which managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Truly a triumph of dreadful business strategy over brilliant technology.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Oh really ?

      I wonder what this sentence is talking about then : "Banyan’s VINES had been offering this for years with StreetTalk, but it was a specialist product, whereas NetWare was the leading PC server OS." ?

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. JQW

      Re: The real king of networking

      There were several other problems with Banyan, other than their marketing department:

      Beyond Mail, their enhanced Windows E-mail client they acquired, was dreadfully buggy. In particular version 3, the 32-bit Windows version, which constantly crapped out with error messages when handling rules that worked fine in the previous release.

      Hardware issues: They were hampered by a limit of 2GB per file-system for far too long. They were also very late in releasing a means of allowing hardware vendors to create their own server device drivers for NICs and storage devices. Their own serial card, the only one supported for many server-to-server comms, was notoriously difficult to configure on many server platforms, until it was re-designed many years too late.

      Then, when Windows NT Server was taking off, Banyan tried to support long filenames. They cocked up the handling of codepages badly, that many systems suffered serious corruption, at lest when using codepages from outside the US. That was the last straw for many sites.

    3. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: The real king of networking

      Actually, the real king was probably XNS which Novell, Ungermann-Bass, Banyan and others in the 80's tried to emulate.

      Remember what we are talking about is office workgroup networking. In the 80's many PC's were effectively being purchased as replacements for typewriters by departments and bypassing the 'IT Dept.'.

      As the use of PC's spread, workgroup networks got larger and the IT department became involved, so the need to interconnect with Enterprise IT and non-PC equipment grow to the fore, which due to various reasons TCP/IP very rapidly became the preferred protocol suite. [Aside: Note I say protocol suite, as Netware and other experts will observe, there is more to office workgroup solutions than the raw networking protocol stack.] With the workgroup solutions being replaced by Enterprise solutions...

  3. Bill Posters

    Brings a tear.

    Started with this stuff - NetWare 2.11. 'Had Windows 1.0' sitting on one of the volumes for that new fangled GUI 'Excel' Spreadsheet.

    NDS / then eDirectory scaled nicely into multi million entries...

    GUI on a server? Whats the point if you're just going to brick it up in a recently refurbished comms room for future admins, auditors, "transformation' project teams and archeologists to fret over?

    But we grow old, our hair falls out (or goes grey if lucky) and we deal with Foggy Fake Farms. (That's virtualised servers in Data Centres charged out by the photo , email address or whatever, for you young PFY.)

    When I were a lad CLI didn't exist, 'cos you don't need an acronym for the only way to do something.

    Try to tell that to the young people today, they won't believe you.

  4. RainForestGuppy

    What destroyed Netware.. Perfect Office!!

    NDS was far superior to Active Directory, but basically the "management" at Novell decided to try to compete against MS Office in the desktop application market.

    I remember going to a trade show and wanted to discuss Netware and although the Novell stand was the biggest there it was all about Perfect Office and Netware was relegated to a tiny kiosk tacked on the side.

    They basically gave up on their core product to flirt in another area and got seriously stiffed! They tried to come back with Netware 5, but by then it was too late.

    If I had a time machine I would go back to the meeting where some joker decided that Novell should by Word Perfect and shoot them!!

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: What destroyed Netware.. Perfect Office!!

      But that is only true in hindsight and with the knowledge of Microsoft Trotskyism.

      They might have been a contender...

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        Re: What destroyed Netware.. Perfect Office!!

        "But that is only true in hindsight and with the knowledge of Microsoft Trotskyism.

        They might have been a contender..."


        "History" tends to be written by the winners in a conflict.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What destroyed Netware.. Perfect Office!!

      didn't they buy Word Perfect?

      I remember we were running 3.12 when I started where I am now (1998), we quickly went to 4.11 and then in about 2000 went to Windows 2000. We also ran Groupwise (or Griefwise as we called it)

      1. Joe User

        Re: What destroyed Netware.. Perfect Office!!

        didn't they buy Word Perfect?

        Yes. Novell bought WordPerfect in June 1994 and sold it to Corel in January 1996.

  5. Alan Bourke

    Ah, Netware.

    The days of installing you from all those stacks of red floppies. It was rock solid, for the most part.

    However, Personal Netware was muck, as were many of the iterations of the client for Windows 95, especially when you had to lock flat-file databases.

  6. Alan Bourke

    Also utilisation snakes.


    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Ah, Netware.

      Netware 286 and before were compiled during installation which was why you had such large numbers of five and a quarter inch floppies, one of the later versions had around 42 disks, the first six of which you had to copy so the compiled version could be written to them.

      A technical salesman friend at the time told me he forever had clients calling him saying "look it's asking for disk 2 again, I've had to put that one in about 5 times", to which he said he wearily replied "yeah perfectly normal, keep going" lol

      My first Netware server at a big Pharma company had an undetected hardware problem with a disk controller for some time and as a result I got to install Netware 286 quite a few times (this was in an era when asking manufacturers for diagnostics drew puzzled expressions) and as such got quite good at the install process which scared the living daylights out of a lot of people at the time, I was quite miffed when Netware 386 and Netware Loadable Modules came out, felt like you'd lost mastery of a dark art :)

    2. Steve the Cynic Silver badge

      Re: Ah, Netware.

      "as were many of the iterations of the client for Windows 95"

      Oh, they weren't all bad. They got me a job once. The main problem from where I was standing was that despite well-documented hooks inside the Win9X VMM for being a network redirector (file-sharing client) that were used by *all* other redirectors issued by everyone else, the Novell client for NetWare networks (as opposed to the Microsoft client for NetWare networks, which was just fine) took it upon itself to totally ignore those hooks, and instead trap file accesses before they got into the heart of Win95's file-system management stuff.

      Consequence: if you were writing an on-access AV scanner for Win95, intercepting calls to the Novell client was a major chore, and (here speaks the voice of experience) involved techniques closely resembling those used by DOS viruses. Bah.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Ah, Netware.

        the various Novell NT4 clients were NOT good!

    3. Sammy Smalls

      Re: Also utilisation snakes.

      I remember installing 4 dot something on a dual CPU machine and seeing the blue snake for the first time. T'was a thing of wonder.

  7. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    The real issue is - once again - IBM

    And yet again we learn that a good product drowned because IBM couldn't be arsed to do its marketing properly and ignored OS2.

    It was 1995, and it was IBM. For Heaven's sake, IBM should have wiped the floor with Microsoft, established OS/2 as the business OS and blared the message over TV and radio.

    Did IBM have a marketing budget in those days ? I wonder what it was used for. Inviting VIP customers to barbecues in exotic locations, perhaps ? Because they sure didn't do any sales pitches.


    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: The real issue is - once again - IBM

      Yes, they did. But their business solutions had OS/2 as a stepchild, and pricey "Business Solutions" based on some three-letter acronyms and mysterious "software suites" and "network protocols" explained in glossy brochures were front and center.

    2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: The real issue is - once again - IBM

      I think both IBM and Novell had problems with price. I recall a comparitive review in PC Magazine between the fairly new NT and whatever Novell were offering at the time. Novell had roughly twice the performance on any metric you cared to ask, but the MS reply was simply "but the price difference is so large that you could by a dual processor box with gobs of RAM to run NT on and it would wipe the floor with Novell's offering and *still* be cheaper".

      Which is the main reason that Linux was able to wipe the floor with Windows Server several years later.

    3. Fred Goldstein

      Re: The real issue is - once again - IBM

      IBM tried to market OS/2 but Microsoft had a dirty trick up its sleeve which killed it.

      Microsoft's oem contract in those days charged per PC sold, not per PC using DOS or Windows. So if a PC vendor sold an OS/2 machine, it would still need to pay Microsoft for the unused DOS/Windows license. This was a lock-out. So OS/2 mainly sold at retail, to enthusiasts (like me) who recognized its superiority.

      Of course an oem could get a different type of license from Microsoft, but the price would be prohibitive.

  8. Nick Ryan Silver badge

    There were many good things about Netware.

    File and directory security wasn't entirely fubar'd... the Windows security model, even now, is still messed up entirely and is not as capable or effective as what was available on Netware. Access rights were centrally stored and administered which was a huge advantage when managing accounts as it was possible to see what rights a user had without having to check every single device and share somewhere on the network to see what arbitrary rights had been assigned there. Not that this model scales overly well but it was a lot easier to manage and more transparent.

    Want to prevent a user from moving a directory? Easy with Netware, "impossible" with Windows... how many and how often are file shares dragged from one location to another and "lost"?

    From my point, it all started to go wrong with Netware 5 and the continued fragmentation of the user interface... some tasks could only be done on the server on it's awful and extremely inefficient GUI, some on "legacy" client tools and others through using the text based interface. It's implementation of TCP/IP was massively improved but that didn't make it more of a joy to confgure.

    I suppose the active changes that Microsoft made to continually break the Netware client and removing the login / authentication plugins forcing Novell to work around things all the time couldn't have helped either.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I think your last paragraph is the key. I was in the thick of running several Netware sites at that time, and the continual deliberate efforts by MS to break the Novell client login were a serious problem. And don't make any mistake about it, it was a deliberate MS policy to break the client software to cripple Netware in the market. It was the major reason that the place I worked transitioned to MS NT network, which was an absolute abortion of a system compared to Netware for straight up File and Print, with nonsense for security.

      We had the local head MS person distributing this "white paper" on how NT had gained the top level security rating from some US Government agency, which impressed the bosses no end. However that was entirely deflated when it was pointed out at a public forum that the rating only applied when the NT machine was quite specifically disconnected from all external access. He was forced to admit that after first denying it when faced with the actual documentation, and also had to admit that a computer that wasn't attached to any other was of limited use in a network situation. That piece of mendacity however didn't stop the transition to NT, and the network was a disaster for several years.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not all progress

    Yes Microsoft Windows Server was good for application servers but the whole point for many companies was that control of data was centralised, Netware did after all spring from a University project to see if the humble PC could deliver a similar environment for the mainframe, whereas Windows took the approach for a long while that it was ok for users to share willy nilly without the admins say so, good for a small team of developers or a small company but appalling to the average corporate company IT department who knew only to well the horrendous messes users could get themselves into (Remember this was before everyone had a PC at home, I can well remember being asked by one manager after we put Windows 3.0 on his PC "So tell me how does this mouse thingy work?" (it was at times like that you knew that you were going to get nothing else done that day).

    That's not to say Netware couldn't run applications, many Netware servers did, and did it well, the thing that really sunk Netware was marketing, Microsoft really excel at this and as one Novell salesman told me one of the main reasons the Xwindow/Java console was added was because Microsoft were demonstrating Windows to senior mangers within companies extolling the GUI environment and running down Netware for being heavily CLI (Novell caught up later but we're talking NT3.51 period)

    It's taken a very long time for Microsoft to truly become a worthwhile successor to Netware, for a long while technically Novell was able to offer far more and better networking solutions than Microsoft, but in the end Microsoft killed their market with superior marketing and presence.

  10. Irongut

    Ah Netware. How I enjoyed the many hours I spent learinging your obscure commands and admin apps.

    I used Netware 3.x in several jobs at large and small companies. I never really had the chance to try Netware 4 or 5 because everyone upgraded from 3.12 to Windows NT 4.

    1. Cynical Observer


      I used Netware 3.x in several jobs at large and small companies. I never really had the chance to try Netware 4 or 5 because everyone upgraded migrated from 3.12 to Windows NT 4.

      There - fixed that for you.

    2. MJI Silver badge

      Wrong - NT4 was a downgrade

      Replaced a few with Netware Servers

      4x faster

  11. ACZ

    Netware 3.11 - the good old days...

    For me as a non-IT person who was responsible for IT of a small company back in the early/mid-90s, Netware was perfect - simple, easy, and *it just worked*. Our office file/print server just never went down, backups ran happily every night, and the dozen or so users never really appreciated or noticed what was going on. Internet access and email (thanks Paul Smith and vPOP3) was seamlessly added, and we had a small business set-up that ran happily for many years.

    Bliss... :)

    1. keithpeter

      Re: Netware 3.11 - the good old days...

      "...and we had a small business set-up that ran happily for many years."

      @ACZ and others: Am I imagining this or was there version control available on the Netware shared drives? I seem to remember reverting to an earlier version of a Very Important Word File had got messed up.

      The Children: they have no idea....

      1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

        Re: Netware 3.11 - the good old days...

        Yes there was. Although it's such a long time ago that I can't remember what the pre-requisites for this were, but it was an amazingly useful feature and saved a lot of blushes.

        1. ACZ

          Re: Netware 3.11 - the good old days...

          Crumbs... it's all a bit of a blur, but I think that you're talking about the SALVAGE utility.

          If you knew about the accidental deletion fairly quickly then you could usually get files back before they were purged from the volume. Depending on how you were doing for available space on the volume, you could have a fairly extended version history.

          Next. I'll be reminiscing about Word Perfect 6.1...


      2. Anonymous Coward

        Re: Netware 3.11 - the good old days...

        Something about file versioning I seem to recall.

        The server kept versioned copies of files which you could restore or somesuch.

        $DEITY, that seems like a long time ago... :D

  12. AndrueC Silver badge

    I have fond(ish) memories of NetWare file systems. NetWare 3 and 4 in particular often came to us with damaged or recreated partition sectors. It only took a little bit of maths and occasionally a 'mix and match' between the two FATs and catalogues and then you got everything back. As they were server OSes people were fairly happy to pay big bucks for us to recover their data.

    NetWare 2 FS was more awkward and NetWare 5 we never saw in the wild.

  13. Tom 7 Silver badge

    it was also overkill: you had to have a tree,

    no - much better to try an add it later when you've painted yourself into a corner.

    The trouble with SME's and SOHO's is you set them up simply and that makes it nigh on impossible to upgrade to the next level without some serious disruption.

    The trouble with the last twenty five years of computing is that someone said it would be simple. They lied.

    And sold you a lot of easy to use software on that lie. And will sell you a lot more if you try and expand unless you can own your own configuration.

  14. John Tserkezis

    Ahh, the memories.

    I started with Netware v2, loved v3, especially the "side installing" feature where you could install Netware from another existing Netware server on the network. I booted off a specially coded batch file on a single floppy, pressed a few keys along the way, and after twenty minutes of arse-scratching, I had a fully functional Netware 3 server ready to be deployed.

    Ahh, the memories... I miss those days.

    Then again, the "cheapo" hardware of the day meant seriously unreliable hardware - even with pre-testing - meant I had the boss on my arse for sending out faulty equipment every so often. I tried to give the "crap in, crap out" argument, but he didn't buy that, he only cared about the bottom line.

    Ahh, the memories... I hate those days.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I wrote a lot of software for NetWare from version 2 through to version 5 and had a lot of interaction with Novell in their HQ hell hole in Provo. It was a great and efficient system. The NLM model allowed for critical services to be downed, upgraded and restarted without requiring a reboot, something modern O/Ses have a problem with.

    To my mind, one of the factors that killed NetWare was the amount of time Novell spent doing version 5 for no real functional gain. With NT as (poor) functional competition the main criticism hurled at Novell was that there was no GUI on the server. They spent an inordinate amount of time creating the Java console. I'm sure this was directed by the remnants of the team that previously ran the AppWare project, since it was clunky, slow and often crashed. If Novell had concentrated on their core technology instead of wasting so much time and resource on a failed cosmetic exercise NetWare may well have survived longer, though I'm not sure it would ever have one.

    Novell's fear of Microsoft had them worrying about the wrong things. Microsoft were far more scared of Novell. I recall one meeting of a standards group where I met a Microsoft Program Manager who's job for the previous 18 months had been to reverse engineer the NDS components and the use of LDAP. We saw the benefits of this in later versions of Windows Server and as Microsoft caught up with Novell's level of functionality there was less market incentive to switch to NetWare - then, of course Linux came along, too.

  16. TeeCee Gold badge

    Don't forget the client!

    Back in the DOS / early Win days, the advent of the Novell ODI stack was a revelation. The moduler setup meant you could poke various bits of it into high memory until you achieved a very optimal memory configuration.

    The architecture of it, with the Link Support Layer sitting on the card driver and arbitrating the different network stacks (including the Novell client) above, meant it had another trick up its sleeve. One of my mates worked at the time in a mixed ICL / UNIX / whatever environment and one evening down the pub, was regaling me with how of the five(!) different network clients they needed to use, any four could be made to play together with varying levels of stability, but not all five. Part of the problem was that the network cards they were using were a tad esoteric.

    A couple of days later, I handed him a floppy containing the Novell card drivers for his kit and a copy of the LSL.

    "But....but....we don't use Novell?"

    "Yes, but every other bugger does. Just install that and tell everything else it's on a Novell network."

    Worked a treat.

  17. Nick Roberts


    That "ABEND" needs to be explained on El Reg...

    1. AndrueC Silver badge

      Re: Incredible..

      Incredible that people have gone back to thinking that UAE is a reference to a country in the Middle East :D

    2. Matt Piechota

      Re: Incredible..

      "That "ABEND" needs to be explained on El Reg..."

      Considering the Software Devs I go to lunch with were 6 years old when Netware 4 was released, I don't think it's that incredible. I'd imagine there are a few IT folks here that have never seen Netware, no?

      Favorite memory of Netware: Coming into the server room and only seeing:


      on the server console.

      1. John 197
        Thumb Up

        Re: Incredible..

        My favorite memory of Netware...rarely having to reboot a server until you needed to. at times not for years

    3. Daniel B.

      Re: Incredible..

      I do know the meaning of ABEND, but I relate that more with mainframes than Novell.

      Oh, I did manage a NetWare server & network ... and I was a teen back then! Stuck to NetWare 3, as upgrading to NetWare 4 was oh so very expensive! Even back then we knew that someone was eventually going to eat Novell's lunch, but back then we were thinking of Apple as System 7 already had file sharing for free. NT wasn't there yet, and OS/2 was ... ok, in some commercials. But I never got to see OS/2 in all its glory.

  18. Why Not?

    Novell 3.1x - ran fast and easy loved it. NW 4 made sense eventually.

    But NT3.x allowed you to use a PC that cost a months pay as a workstation as well as sharing files. Cost of Netware = 2 weeks pay. NT3.x = 2 days pay.

    If you were selling 3 - 4 machines with a shared database to a customer you could knock off the cost of the server machine.

    Novell could have added a decent native database and dropped the cost and have had more of a chance.

    1. Sammy Smalls

      Well it did have btrieve......

      1. TeeCee Gold badge

        Well it did have btrieve......

        OI! You. Mouth. Soap. Now.


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