Access Exchange with the Evolution client for Linux

Learn how to set up Ximian Evolution as a full-featured Exchange client on Linux/UNIX desktops.

If you need to access a Microsoft Exchange mailbox from a Linux/UNIX system but prefer not to use Outlook Web Access, then you should consider the Ximian Evolution client with the Ximian Connector for Microsoft Exchange. This solution provides a full-featured Exchange client that attempts to rival Microsoft Outlook on Windows computers. I'm going to provide you with an overview of installing and using Evolution, as well as discuss scenarios when using this client makes sense.

About the product
Ximian's Evolution client is for Mandrake 9.1 (Intel), SuSe 8.2 (Intel), Red Hat 7.3, 8.0, and 9.0 Linux environments, as well as Sun Solaris 8 (Sparc). Evolution is available as a free download. However, you do have to pay for the Exchange Connector. A single license costs $69, a 10-license pack costs $599 ($59.90/license), and a 25-license pack costs $1,449 ($57.96/license).

Exchange 2000
In order to connect, the Evolution Client with Exchange Connector requires an Exchange 2000 server with Outlook Web Access enabled. Exchange 5.5 and 2003 are not currently supported.

Installing the Evolution Client is very straightforward, even for a Linux novice like myself. The installation process focuses less on Exchange server connectivity, and more on system options and considerations. Besides being an Exchange client, Evolution can also be a POP3 mail client and offers full calendar, task, note, and contact management.

While requiring one of the above-mentioned Linux distributions, the Evolution client also requires wget for the installation. Wget is best described as a simultaneous download and install tool. Wget is included in Mandrake 9.1 (the Linux distribution I use in this example) and is also included in other popular distributions, depending on your installation options. It is also available as a free download. The Ximian Web site provides clear installation instructions. Figures A to I illustrate the installation process.

Figure A
Here's the welcome screen that appears after invoking the installation from the command line.

Figure B
The installer verifies your RPM database.

Figure C
Select a mirror site to download the software.

Figure D
You can watch the progress of the download as the "#" signs multiply.

Figure E
When the download is complete, the GUI installer launches.

Figure F
The installer detects your Linux/UNIX version.

Figure G
You select the components for the installation.

Figure H
You can watch of the download progress of packages needed for installation.

Figure I
Finally, you will be prompted with an Installation Complete screen.

Working with Evolution
The Evolution client has an intuitive interface, similar to that of Microsoft Outlook. Ximian Evolution mirrors most of the major functions that exist in Outlook. Figure J provides a look at the application.

Figure J
Evolution purposefully mirrors Outlook, which so many businesses already use.

I like the look and feel of Evolution on my Linux Mandrake installation (using the KDE 3.1 desktop). The interface is intuitive, and has many features that closely mimic Outlook. For example, the Summary folder item is analogous to the Outlook Today icon, and allows you to put in things like a localized weather forecast, as well as a quick look at your calendar and e-mail inbox (see Figure K).

Figure K
Evolution's Summary folder item mimics the Outlook Today feature in Outlook.

Of course, if you're connecting to Exchange and a Windows network, then there are going to be authentication issues involved. Since I'm not authenticating to the Windows Active Directory from this Linux machine, a "distributed" password wouldn't be possible because it would need to originate from a Windows system. If you normally authenticate on one domain and your Exchange server is on another domain, you're used to typing your password each time you open Outlook. The Evolution client has the option to save the password for the Exchange account for each Linux account. Figure L shows a view of the initial authentication.

Figure L
Here's an Evolution authentication screen.

The Out of the Office AutoReply in Outlook/Exchange is a frequently used feature in many organizations, and the Evolution client offers this feature as well (see Figure M). It functions similarly to Outlook, except that the Evolution client doesn't give you the option to apply rules to incoming messages while the AutoReply is turned on.

Figure M
An Out of Office AutoReply feature also exists in Evolution.

I have become quite familiar with the keyboard shortcuts in Microsoft Outlook (for example, [Ctrl]N starts a new mail message from the Inbox, and [Ctrl][Shift]M opens a new mail message from anywhere in Outlook). I was quite please to see these keystrokes are maintained in the Evolution client, as you can see when you open the File menu (see Figure N).

Figure N
Opening the File menu shows the keyboard shortcuts available for the various functions.

Debugging option
As you evaluate this product and work out the kinks, you have a nice option for debugging. You can start the application by typing evolution or evolution-1.4 from a command prompt. In the background terminal, you can see any error events as they interact in your session.

Connectivity problems
I was a little disappointed with the occasional authentication problems I had. For example, I ran into trouble when I had a client authenticated via Outlook Web Access and Microsoft Outlook and then tried to access the same mailbox with the Evolution client. I also had an occasional error saying that the system could not connect to the Exchange server. Some initial investigation as to what was causing the problem leads me to believe it is the equivalent of Outlook's Network Problems Are Preventing… error message in Outlook 2002 when using Exchange 2000 and having connectivity problems. Figure O shows the Evolution error message.

Figure O
Evolution sometimes runs into problems with Exchange connectivity and provides this error message.

The Ximian Evolution Client with the Exchange Connector does a good job of remembering profiles for each user. In fact, it does a little better job than Outlook does in Windows. With Evolution, the profiles are kept per user on the Linux operating system, so each user has his or her own Exchange settings (server, username, and preferences in the application) kept to each account on that machine.

Non-Windows client environments
The Ximian Evolution application is definitely more robust than Outlook Web Access, but not quite as useful or integrated as the full Outlook client. However, if there are power users running Linux/UNIX desktops in your organization (in the graphic arts department, for example), this application should be considered.

Additionally, because Linux/UNIX works well in a multi-user setup, you could easily set up Evolution on a Linux system (along with other basic applications, such as word processing, spreadsheets, Web browsers, and file managers in a Linux/UNIX GUI) and then use terminal computing or thin-client computing (over Citrix MetaFrame or Canaveral iQ, for example) to deliver a fully functional desktop to most computing environments, including other Linux/UNIX distributions not supported by Evolution.

Download the Evolution manual
Learn more about working with Ximian Evolution and integrating with mail data sources other than an Exchange server by checking out the online manual for the Evolution client.

Final word
The Evolution client offers administrators and savvy users an additional option for connecting to an Exchange mailbox. While not as full-featured as the standard Outlook client, Evolution and its Exchange Connector do provide more functionality than Outlook Web Access for users who run Linux/UNIX on their desktops.


Rick Vanover is a software strategy specialist for Veeam Software, based in Columbus, Ohio. Rick has years of IT experience and focuses on virtualization, Windows-based server administration, and system hardware.


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