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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.