1987 Networking: ELS NetWare 286 Level I 2.0a

A rare find recently turned up: NetWare from 1987, specifically the low-end ELS variant of NetWare 286 version 2.0a (ELS may be claimed to mean Entry Level System or maybe Entry Level Server, but at least originally it stood for Entry Level Solution). NetWare v2.0 was released in 1985, followed by v2.0a in 1986. In November 1987, NetWare v2.1 was to become available, but in September of that year Novell released the low-end ELS product with support for 4 users (really 4 concurrent connections) and without some of the perks of Advanced NetWare. The ELS package was based on the about-to-be obsoleted v2.0a version of NetWare 286.

Screenshot of non-dedicated ELS NetWare 2.0a booting up.
Is it DOS? Is it NetWare? It’s both!

The original ELS I product was later updated with NetWare v2.12 as its basis. In early 1988, Novell added an ELS II package with support for 8 users. The ELS II variant was initially based on NetWare v2.1 and later updated to v2.11, v2.12, and finally v2.15. In 1991, Novell consolidated all the low-end versions into NetWare 2.2 (sold alongside NetWare 3.11 and released more or less at the same time as 3.11).

A print ad for ELS (Entry Level Solution) NetWare, published in PC Magazine in December 1987. "To get the power of NetWare, you'll have to pay a small price", $595. Via Google Books.
A NetWare ELS print ad (PC Magazine, December 1987)

For whatever reason, even though NetWare versions for PCs existed since the early 1980s, it is nearly impossible to find any NetWare server software from before 1990; presumably in large part because NetWare actually sold in rather small numbers before 1990 and with funny stuff like hardware locks in the early versions, the software wasn’t very useful once the hardware died. Whatever the reason, NetWare from 1987 is exceedingly rare, and in fact any PC networking software from 1987 or earlier is surprisingly difficult to find.

With its September 1987 release date, ELS NetWare 2.0a is more or less a contemporary of OS/2 (version 1.0 of OS/2 being finalized around October 1987). The two systems are very different but have a few things in common. Both require a 286 processor and run in protected mode. Both support running a real-mode DOS session in addition to the protected-mode OS. NetWare could already do that in 1986 if not 1985, significantly earlier than OS/2; on the other hand, a NetWare server was never meant to run on every desktop machine.

The ELS 2.0a version of NetWare only supports the non-dedicated server (i.e. DOS + NetWare server); the more expensive non-ELS NetWare versions also supported dedicated servers running without DOS. Probably for that reason, the ELS NetWare v2.0a hard disk cannot be set up to boot directly to NetWare, the machine has to boot DOS first and then start the server (this changed in the later NetWare ELS releases).

The Floppies

All that survived was a cardboard box with thirteen bright red NetWare floppies. Thanks to NetWare ELS I v2.0a documentation found on an old Novell Network Support Encyclopedia (NSE) CD from 1992, I was able to confirm that the disk set is complete. Although that’s not entirely true–there should have been one 3.5″ floppy with the NetWare shell files, but its contents were likely the same as the 5.25″ shell floppy. So far so good.

The START floppy of ELS NetWare 286 Level I v2.0 floppy, with serial number sticker.
ELS NetWare 286 Level I v2.0 floppy with serial number

Reading the floppies was not so easy though. For whatever reason, the disks were in somewhat poor condition and several could not be read without errors, and one could not be read at all. Fortunately, most of the bad sectors were in the last tracks of the respective floppies, and did not corrupt any files. Even so, at least two non-essential files were damaged. The unreadable disk was the NE1000 variant of the server.

Luckily there were other variants of the server. One for RX-Net (ARCnet), which is not terribly useful, and another for the 3Com EtherLink 3C501. And the 3C501 server floppy was readable without errors, which means it’s possible to set up the ELS I v2.0a server on an Ethernet network.


Having installed NetWare ELS v2.15 as well as Advanced NetWare v2.15, I expected the installation to be very difficult. I was disappointed—it wasn’t hard at all. Boot DOS, insert the START floppy, run START.BAT, follow the prompts, and after a few minutes, the VM running the server was fully operational. It was nothing like installing NetWare 2.15, and in fact it was about the simplest NetWare install of all the versions I’ve seen. How is that possible? Simple—the list of supported hardware is very short, and there is not a lot of configurable features.

ELS NetWare 2.0a Easy Installation screenshot.
Can I please zap your hard disk? Please?!

The ELS I v2.0a version of NetWare only supports IBM PC/AT or sufficiently “pure” clone hardware. Notably it has no support for disk controllers not compatible with the PC/AT. And the only networking hardware supported on the server is Novell NE1000, 3Com EtherLink, and Novell RX-Net.

Screenshot of non-dedicated NetWare server configuration.
One physical and one virtual adapter in non-dedicated NetWare

As mentioned above, the NetWare hard disk is not bootable (no “cold boot loader”). To run the server, one has to boot DOS, insert the appropriate server floppy disk (OS_3C501, OS_NE1000, or OS_RXNET), and run BOOT.BAT. It’s of course possible to combine the DOS and NetWare files on a single bootable floppy. Interestingly, the server floppy need not be customized during installation in any way. All configuration data is stored on the NetWare hard disk partition. This is presumably possible because so few network adapters were supported, and only one disk controller; therefore the usual configure/link server step is entirely unnecessary.

After NetWare is installed, it is—somewhat confusingly—possible to use the INSTALL floppy to adjust various parameters of the server and perform maintenance tasks (remember that the initial setup is done through the START disk, not INSTALL). It’s possible to add NetWare partitions or disks, change the server name, and so on.

Running NetWare ELS I v2.0a

Because NetWare ELS I v2.0a supports only non-dedicated servers, and because missing network hardware does not prevent the server from starting (at least not the 3C501 variant), it is possible to use the server as a standalone system. There is a virtual network adapter which allows the DOS NetWare shell to communicate with the non-dedicated server. The CONSOLE command can be used to switch to the server console, and the DOS command can be used to go back to DOS.

Screenshot of the MONITOR screen on the ELS NetWare 2.0a console.
The MONITOR console command in ELS NetWare 2.0a

Once the NetWare server is started, it behaves like a normal DOS workstation. The F: network drive contains the LOGIN command, and after logging in, other network drives show up. Standard NetWare administrator tools (SYSCON, FILER) are there, just like the common user utilities (SLIST, MAP, FLAG, etc.). There is even decent on-line help (available, very appropriately, through the HELP command).

A screenshot of the ELS NetWare 2.0a SYSCON utility.
The SYSCON utility in ELS NetWare 2.0a

The ancient server works over the network as well, and it’s no trouble connecting to it from a DOS workstation running the NetWare shell (in fact it’s ridiculously easy).

Screenshot of a NetWare shell using ODI drivers and attached to ELS NetWare 286 Level I v2.0a server.
NetWare shell connected to ELS 2.0a server

Anyone who is familiar with the later NetWare 2.x or 3.x releases should have no trouble using NetWare ELS I v2.0a. If anything, it’s surprising how little the NetWare user experience had changed since about 1986 until the mid-1990s (Microsoft’s networking products were no different in that regard). For file sharing from DOS 3.x workstations, NetWare from 1987 works very well.

All in all, recovering a working NetWare installation from flaky 30+ year old floppies was not a given. It is too bad that the NE1000 server disk did not survive, but 99% of the rest is intact and functional. At this point, this ELS NetWare 2.0a floppy set is the oldest known surviving NetWare server, and one of the very few surviving versions from before 1990.

The floppy images (as much as could be recovered) are available here.

This entry was posted in 286, 3Com, Kryoflux, NetWare, Networking. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to 1987 Networking: ELS NetWare 286 Level I 2.0a

  1. Darkstar says:

    Awesome find!

    From my experience, some disks might be possible to be read with a different floppy drive. Do you have access to a KryoFlux device? A few flux-level dumps with a high enough number of rotations sampled (like 20 or 30), and with at least two different floppy dives might be enough to reconstruct the data. I have successfully salvaged data from a couple floppies that way

  2. Michal Necasek says:

    The magnetic coating on the floppies comes off, unfortunately. It’s a physical problem with the disks, most likely the floppies were poorly stored. The other day I dumped 25 5.25″ HD floppies of NetWare 3.11 from 1991 and those read 100% error free, but they had clearly been better stored.

    I do have a Kryoflux and I have raw dumps of what I could read off the floppies. And I realized that the HxC software can get a little more out of the disks than Kryoflux DTC does. And in some cases, it can even decode the odd tracks on 360K floppies, especially towards the center of the disk. I might have another go after properly cleaning everything again but I don’t have high hopes.

    Other than the NE1000 disk, the two damaged files (FILER.HLP and MENUPARZ.COM) are almost certainly identical to what was on other NetWare 2.0a or maybe even 2.1 releases… but I’ve never seen images of those. As you probably know, Novell worked differently from e.g. Microsoft and rather than rebuilding the whole product every time, they kept shipping the same old binaries until they actually needed to update them, so identical files with identical timestamps often exist across several releases. The ELS v2.0a release is full of files with 1986 timestamps, and even a few from 1985.

  3. Chris M. says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen an install of NetWare in a small business setting. Most used what was built into Windows or something like LANtastic. A previous employer used LANtastic to network 3 machines with their special network cards. For some reason never upgraded it beyond the Thinnet configuration well into the late 1990s….. this was despite the place being a computer store with plenty of Ethernet cards in stock and active 10BaseT elsewhere in the store! Than again old habits die hard as they were still doing payroll with a Lotus 1-2-3 R2.3 spreadsheet!

  4. Yuhong Bao says:

    NetWare ELS dates back to before things like Windows for Workgroups.

  5. Richard Wells says:

    Netware ELS was released about the same time as LANtastic and the possibility of cheap minimal seat Lan Manager setups. Get the buyer hooked and sell upgrade seats as needed because the effort in changing networking software is huge. Before that was the pain of things like IBM PC Network or the very low price but very slow serial port networks like EasyLAN which weren’t much of threat to Netware.

    I know the company I worked for in the early 90s made most of its revenue selling to small companies running Netware. Netware was a bit strange in terms of version upgrades. Sometimes, it cost more than buying a fresh install while other times it seemed the new version just got sent for free.

  6. Michal Necasek says:

    I’m not sure how old LANtastic is, but ELS NetWare (1987) pre-dates LAN Manager (1988), let alone Windows for Workgroups (1992).

    I have mostly seen NetWare in schools and larger businesses. I’d say the ability to centrally manage things was useless to some businesses and crucial to others. I also believe the NetWare shell had fairly modest resource requirements and was thus very suitable for older/lower-end machines.

  7. Michal Necasek says:

    Yes, the upgrade path from ELS must have been quite important. Having looked at ELS and “real” NetWare it’s apparent that ELS was simpler for administrators, but users probably wouldn’t even notice any difference.

    I have also observed that NetWare was far from cheap, but oftentimes an updated version was “free for registered users”. And those huge boxes with lots of printed documentation can’t have been entirely cheap to manufacture.

  8. Richard Wells says:

    Infoworld announcements:
    March 2, 1987 3+ for Netbios $1,050 for 5 users. Lots of twists and turns before the joining up with MS produced a recognizable Lan Manager but the pricing tended to stay in the same range.
    July 13, 1987 Announcement of Lantastic shipping. Also in the $200 per seat range.

    Netware ELS faced off against those announcement.

    Netware had one other advantage for the small business market. There were accounting packages designed around Btrieve. Once Novell bought Btrieve and placed onto the server, it became easy to convince the businesses to join the network craze, go Netware and get the accounting packages instantly upgraded to multi-user without retraining.

  9. Michal Necasek says:

    Ah, you mean 3Com’s 3+Share, the forerunner of LAN Manager. Neither 3+Share nor LANtastic were really equivalent to NetWare, but they certainly competed for the same space.

  10. Chris M. says:

    LANtastic was a bargain at that per seat pricing considering it included NICs. Looking at the pricing in that same issue, a single 3Com Etherlink card cost more than 2 “seats” of LANtastic. Most small businesses were sneakernetting it for the most part. Even LANtastic was pricey for most.

    While it had its warts, Apple was perhaps the most forward thinking when it came to networking. You had LocalTalk out of the box on every Mac ready to go. It just needed file/printer sharing software (later included with the OS). Wiring was dirt cheap once PhoneNET became available. There were even ISA cards and DOS AppleTalk stacks.

  11. Yuhong Bao says:

    AppleShare 2.x before System 7 did require a dedicated Mac though.

  12. Peter says:

    Usage is different between countries. In the UK in the 90s, Netware was extremely widespread in both businesses and education.

    Lovely, solid server, and SFT III was brilliant. However, people started needing proper application servers, and it couldn’t keep up to the facilities provided by NT.

    Netware was less hassle to administer than OS/2, and easier to set up. Much though I was a fan of OS/2 on the desktop, getting it match Netware’s file serving capabilities in all situations was awkward.

  13. rasz_pl says:

    YT “Oral History of Kanwal Rekhi” (Excelan, Novell CTO) has some interesting stories about Novell, their strategies, Lite products and bonkers ideas (mormon run, trying to compete with Microsoft, hate of unix despite owning it).

  14. Richard Wells says:

    Surfing the High Tech Wave is another history of early Novell. A bit gossipy but it gives some attention to marketing versus technical concerns and an overview of the very fragmented early networking market.

    AppleTalk was one of the last daisy-chained serial port network designs. Acorn had Econet a few years earlier. Great for cassette era educational software where the data transmission needs were modest, adequate for a printer, but rapidly overwhelmed by the requirements for collaborative editing of graphical documents.

  15. Julien Oster says:

    As another anecdotical data point, I remember seeing NetWare a lot in 90s Germany as well, at least in medium-sized businesses and schools. In fact, all the other similarly classed LAN products mentioned here (with the exception of WfW when it came out) were either unknown to me, or just names I read during OS installation or the occasional IT magazines. But I was also too young to get a representative glimpse of the market, so it could be coincidence that pretty much all businesses and school I encountered used NetWare as well.

    Not sure about small businesses, though I wasn’t around them a lot, but I did actually get to know NetWare in reasonable depth some time before seeing it in business/school environments, because we actually used it at home (from, I think, 3.11 on; I was allowed my own server instance and network clients to play around with it as well).

    It left enough of an impression that I used some open source NetWare server clone implementation on my Linux server for a while. (Surprisingly hard to find out what it was called, was it mars_nwe, or were there others?)

  16. Michal Necasek says:

    Thanks for the pointer, that’s an interesting interview. Sadly not a lot of Excelan software seems to have survived.

    Novell’s problem was that in the early 1990s, they were drowning in money. They tried to buy everything in sight to compete with Microsoft (actually tried merging with Lotus first) but in the meantime, Microsoft undermined Novell’s core business.

    Hating Unix while owning the UNIX trademark is pretty funny though. Not to mention insane.

  17. Chris M. says:

    No denying that Novell NetWare was popular with schools and large businesses. Like others, I never saw the ELS product deployed anyway. Microsoft took over the market mostly because of the competition’s incompetence as usual. Both Novell and Banyan VINES held onto text based configuration tools for way too long. Windows NT’s killer feature was all GUI configuration/management interfaces. Having a streamlined built-in client with every version of Windows helped too. Novell’s “full” client was notoriously bloated and didn’t integrate well (particularly with NT based OSes). Banyan’s was simply late to market!

  18. Michal Necasek says:

    I never saw ELS in action either, then again when ELS was current I was in grade school and ELS wasn’t big enough for education. I do remember using NetWare in high school, but I can’t remember if it was 2.x or 3.x. I have a vague memory that it was NetWare 2.2 (if not 2.15) because 3.x was too expensive. And really 2.x did everything the school needed.

    Novell probably knew that experienced admins don’t care if the management interface is text or GUI, as long as it efficiently does what they need. But they forgot that a pretty face (no matter how useless in practice) is a huge selling point for new customers. The NetWare text-based admin tools are surprisingly easy to use for something designed around 1985.

    Microsoft obviously hugely benefited from selling both the client and the server, that was something no one could compete with. Novell’s (and especially Excelan’s) strength was in tying together various hardware and various client OSs, but in a monoculture that didn’t have much value.

  19. Ecky says:

    I worked in the tech dept of probably the largest UK Novell distributor back in the early 90’s.

    Netware 2.2 and LAN Manager (also) 2.2 were on their way out. Netware 3.1x was very well entrenched in enterprises of most sizes. I did my CNE in Netware 2.2 and ECNE with Netware 3 stuff.

    As well as it being a straight up file server, and a very good one at that, it had a bunch of integration products to hook it up to other systems. This was the area I most liked and was interested in.

    Netware NFS would export Novell volumes as NFS shares to Unix boxen.

    Netware NFS Gateway would take an NFS export and present it as a Novell volume to PCs.

    Netware for Mac would allow the Netware server to participate in an Appletalk network

    Netware Connect allowed for banks of modems to be shared for either dial in our dial out.

    Netware for LAT would gateway IPX protocol to DECs LAT so PCs could access VMS hosts.

    Netware for SAA would allow IPX networks to integrate with mainframe and AS/400 hosts using all manner of connectivity (X.25, SDLC, HDLC etc) and allow it to fully participate in an SNA network.

    I’m sure there were more.

    Curiously Novell never made an IP Gateway product. At least I don’t recall one. There was something called Firefox Novix that ran on the Netware server and achieved same.

    There was a version of Netware Server that ran on OS2 (Portable Netware) and a version marketed by DEC that ran on VMS hosts (Pathworks for Netware).

    Netware 4 came out in 94 I think. It’s main selling point was NDS which really allowed Netware to scale. Microsoft released Windows NT 3.1 around the same time which was inferior to Netware in just about every way apart from the GUI. I largely stopped playing with Netware late 90s and focused more on CheckPoint firewalls and Cisco kit.

    As you say, the text interfaces of the utilities were super easy to use. My muscle memory can pretty much still navigate Monitor.NLM without too much fuss!

    Fun Times! I have Netware 2.2 disks if you want. Where did you get 2.0 from and what do you run it on? Would love to fire it up again!

  20. Michal Necasek says:

    The ELS NetWare 2.0a disks were from eBay, where else… I don’t have the numbers at hand but those old NetWare versions never sold in large numbers, so finding any survivors is luck more than anything. Many versions sold fewer than 10,000 copies, which is why things like NetWare 386 (3.0/3.1) are impossible to find.

    I sent you an e-mail about NW 2.2.

  21. Chris M. says:

    Novell did make an IP gateway called IntranetWare IPX/IP Gateway.


    I have first hand experience actually using it as my high school implemented it for about a year before switching to native TCP/IP. It was kludgy as you needed a WINSOCK shim and a bridge application on all the client machines. The reasons for running native IPX in the above document are quite weak and dated. A simple NAT setup or SOCKS proxy server did most of what the Novell gateway did with less hassles.

    Speaking of that high school. They really had trouble committing to NetWare. It seemed that all the computer labs were setup with a dedicated NT4 domain server in each one, while the library was initially setup with NetWare 5…..which also served desktops in classrooms. Why the computer labs were separate incompatible networks I’ll never know… they all got their Internet connection from the same source!

  22. Michal Necasek says:

    Yeah, Novell kind of missed the boat on the TCP/IP transition. They eventually worked everything out, but probably a couple of years later than they needed to. It’s really ironic since Excelan was acquired by Novell in 1989, and Excelan was one of the first companies that used TCP/IP with LANs. So Novell had all the technology but probably too much of a NIH syndrome. I mean Novell’s idea of the solution was to make UnixWare use IPX.

    Microsoft was (perhaps by accident) much better positioned. NetBIOS over TCP/IP is quite old (late 1980s?) because Microsoft had XENIX and LM/X (LAN Manager for UNIX). NT 3.1 could do NetBIOS over TCP/IP out of the box, even LAN Manager 2.0 could. So with Microsoft’s products, it was trivial for their file sharing to coexist with the Internet on a LAN, even when running DOS/Windows 3.x.

  23. Ecky says:

    Yes I got my 2.2 from eBay too. Chap also had 2.12 and 2.15 for sale but I only sprang for the 2.2.

    Chris, fair – Novell’s IP/IPX gateway but that came much later than the halcyon 3.x era I was alluding to. Novell’s solution at the time, as Michal says, was to make a Unix that supported IPX.

  24. Yuhong Bao says:

    Thinking about it, I wonder why Novell used 360K and 720K floppies for so long for NetWare (by 2.2 it was fixed)

  25. Michal Necasek says:

    Actually, I can make a guess — it was possible to run the install process on any machine, not necessarily (or even not usually) on the server. There were probably enough XT class machines around at the time that it made sense to ship on DD media. But it sure was a pain.

  26. vbdasc says:

    I’m sorry for the late question, but can you say what VM did you run this Netware 2.0a in? Especially with its working support of virtual Etherlink I ? Sorry and thanks in advance.

  27. Michal Necasek says:

    I ran it in VirtualBox. 3C501 emulation should be included in “Development Snapshots” here.

  28. Rob says:

    Here you have pristine ELS 286 floppies archived: https://archive.org/details/els_20230509

  29. Michal Necasek says:

    Pristine yes, but also different!

    The SHELL-1 disk contains a newer NE1000 driver, dated 04/19/1988 vs 01/21/1988 on my disks. The NE1000 server disk could be different too but since mine is completely unreadable, I can’t say for sure. Judging from the file timestamps it is almost certainly newer.

    The PUBLIC-6 disk additionally includes an INT2F.COM utility dated 06/03/1987 that calls itself “BIOS Interrupt 2Fh Emulator Version 2.10 Beta”. It’s not there on mine.

    I think the part numbers on some of the disks might be different but the disk labels weren’t properly archived in this newer disk set so it’s hard to be sure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.