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The Novell Beigepapers

Beginning in 1998, I had the privilege of working on a special team at Novell, Inc. whose mandate from then-CEO Eric Schmidt was to drag Novell’s products and processes kicking and screaming into the 21st century. It was Novell’s first real attempt to embrace the Internet and it was a massive undertaking. The project began with migrating Novell’s colossal and entrenched infrastructure from IPX/SPX to TCP/IP, but the ultimate goal was to move all of Novell’s business processes to the web.

In 1998, this was considered madness. No one thought you could provide business applications securely via the web without requiring, at the very least, a VPN client. But while everyone else was arguing about whether such a thing was even possible, we just went ahead and did it.

Interestingly, one of our initiatives was to create and implement a web-based email service that could be used by both employees and their families. Eventually, we were going to open it up and make it available as a free service to the general public as a showcase for Novell’s products. And would you care to guess what this free web-based email service was called?

Gmail. The “G,” in this case, standing for GroupWise, Novell’s email product.

So imagine my surprise when Eric Schmidt accepted the job as Google’s CEO and two years later announced…well…Gmail. If memory serves, I spent two days wandering the halls, bellowing, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”


As part of the project, I was asked to write a series of technical documents that would explain the sometimes painful process we were going through in hopes of helping our customers avoid some of the same pain. The result was The Novell Beigepapers.

Here’s the introduction to the series:

Most documentation starts as hastily scrawled notes from sleep-deprived developers who weren’t necessarily hired for their keen communication skills. Those notes are then fleshed out by recently-graduated English majors who have spent their last four years immersed in works of fiction. The results are then passed on to the marketing department whose job it is to make sure that no word or phrase, even if it’s true, will reflect unfavorably on the product (“I don’t think that the word ‘Basic’ properly communicates the exciting nature of the product. Why don’t we call it ‘Visual Zesty!?!’”). It is then beset by lawyers who finish the job by making sure that they haven’t explicitly promised that the product will actually do anything.

By the time the documentation gets into your hands, it has been so sanitized for your protection and generalized beyond recognition that you usually have to go out and buy a 3rd-party manual (that was, more often than not, written by the same non-technical technical writer who wrote the original documentation) in a vain attempt to get an unbiased, unexpurgated, and/or unfiltered view of just how you’re really supposed to use the stuff.

That’s where the “@ Novell” series comes in. Rather than the vague, generalized, and wholly fictional examples found in most documentation, we’re going to tell you exactly how we use our own products to run our own company. We are not, after all, a small, tidy computing environment suitable for documentation. We are a big, sprawling, untidy computing environment made up of over 500 production servers and 20,000 workstations in 130 locations throughout the world. In other words, we’re probably an awful lot like you.

But please keep in mind that this document may be more than a little rough. It wasn’t conceived by a committee, written by a committee, or approved by a committee, so it hasn’t been edited, re-edited, tidied up, sanitized, and whitewashed. Don’t think of this as an official whitepaper. It’s more like a beigepaper.

Writing these things was a blast, and even though they’re now quite dated (and I cringe at the crude formatting), I’m making the PDFs available here for archaeological purposes. Enjoy.


I got my Bush-Cheney 2004 Reelection Enticement Coupon (sometimes referred to as a “Child Tax Credit refund check”) in the mail yesterday and, like the good little supply-side drone that I am, I headed out to Borders today to pump that money back into the economy by buying Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing With Web Standards.

Designing with Web Standards by Jeffrey Zeldman

When I took it up to the cashier, the young lady behind the counter grabbed the book, took one look at its cover and asked, quite excitedly, “Is that Eminem!?!”

“No, I’m afraid not,” I replied. “It’s Zeldman.”


“Jeffrey Zeldman.”

“Oh,” she said, obviously disappointed. “With that hat, I thought it was Eminem.”

The hat notwithstanding, how in the world could you confuse Eminem with Jeffrey Zeldman? One is a chart-topping artist whose work has redefined an entire genre and who has rabid fans all around the world that will travel thousands of miles to see him whenever he makes an appearance; the other is a rapper.

But it got me thinking…

Designing with Web Standards by Zeldminem