Software

E-mail and PIM without Microsoft Exchange?


Microsoft Exchange partnered with Microsoft Outlook creates a powerful E-mail and Shared information environment. Users today expect to be able to access shared resources such as internal address books and mailing lists, calendars which allow schedules / appointment information to be shared plus shared contact lists to allow easy management of external contacts.  At the same time users want to be able to manage their own personal calendar and contact lists while maintaining the ability to delegate permissions on these resources.

Microsoft Exchange often comes under criticism in the areas of security, data integrity and cost.  With Microsoft Outlook being the defacto standard for many users, what alternatives are there to Exchange while retaining the feature set which makes it so popular?

 

Open-Xchange Server 5

Open-Xchange Server 5 is a collaboration server that runs on a Linux platform (RedHat Enterprise Linux or Suse Linux Enterprise Server 9) using open source components such as Postfix, Tomcat/Apache, Cyrus and OpenLdap.  Here’s a small excerpt from the Open-Xchange website:

“Open-Xchange Server 5 provides critical collaborative functions such as e-mail, calendaring, contacts and task management - fully integrated with advanced groupware features such as Documail, Smart Linking, Smart Permissions, document sharing, project tracking, user forums, and a knowledge base. Open-Xchange Server 5 works with the widest variety of browsers, mobile devices and ‘rich clients' such as MS Outlook.”

Open-Xchange uses a connector to synchronise calendar, task and contact information between Outlook and the server.  Public folders are also implemented via the connector.  Outlook enabled functionality is the main selling point for Open-Xchange “Real-time functionality at every seat; immediate employee acceptance, and you still get to keep your MS Outlook clients? OPEN-XCHANGE® Server 5.0 delivers all that.”  A full web-based groupware suite also means that users can log on from anywhere so long as they have access to the Internet and a supported web browser.  Data entered via Outlook such as contact and calendar information will be available within the groupware client as it is regularly synchronised by the Outlook OXtender.

Open-Xchange Server 5 is the latest offering from OPEN-XCHANGE Inc whom in the past worked with SUSE Linux AG to produce SUSE Linux Openexchange Server (known as SLOX).  I have used and supported both SLOX and Open-Xchange Server 5, unfortunately I consider SLOX to be the better of the two (I say unfortunately as it is no longer available).  Open-Xchange Server integrates with the underlying operating system quite poorly, system updates need to be thoroughly tested to ensure that they do not ‘break’ Open-Xchange--applying an Open-Xchange product update is rather more time consuming than one would hope; any configuration files which have been modified from the default configuration will need to be backed up, then any changes re-applied to the new files after applying the update.  This however isn’t my greatest aversion.  The OXtender Outlook plug-in is rather unstable; the appointment functions of Outlooks calendar (Accept, Tentative or Decline) do not work and in fact have buggy side effects which in themselves make the OXtender a non-starter.  The shared contacts functionality is a little better but still buggy and data in Outlook often loses sync with the server.   Email is implemented via standard IMAP and SMTP so has no trouble interacting with Outlook or Thunderbird.

While Open-Xchange has some imperfections, they are mainly related to updates and the Outlook OXtender.  For single site installations without the need for shared resources Open-Xchange could well be a viable mail platform--it could work very well if users only work in the web interface rather than Outlook and the connector.

It would be interesting to hear from any users of Open-Xchange especially those using the OXtender--leave a comment if you have a minute to spare.  Open-Xchange is of course not the only collaboration platform that can interact with Outlooks more advanced features while running on a Linux platform, next week I’ll take a look at the Oracle Collaboration Suite 10g.

16 comments
paul.sterne
paul.sterne

As an open source company, Open-Xchange encourages peer reviews of its software. Peer review is consistent with one of the most important principles of the open source movement, transparency. Everyone gets access to the source code. Everyone can see how it works. Everyone can offer suggestions and improvements. Open-Xchange Server has been downloaded 200,000 times since 2004. Each one of these downloads is an opportunity for peer review and improvement. We believe that about 1.5 million people currently use Open-Xchange Server in 65+ countries. Our largest implementation is www.onlinecampus.at , which has a potential of 210,000 registered users. Each Open-Xchange user is encouraged to enter bugs or enhancements in Bugzilla in the Community or Developer Zone section of our web site. We call this Open QA and Open Product Management. Based on the frequency of mention and how important the feature or function is to the overall use of Open-Xchange Server, we prioritize bug fixes or feature enhancements. Open-Xchange Server works with ?plain vanilla? open source components. We do not customize the open source distributions or middleware stack that our code relies upon. This means that the open source community has complete transparency of the ?stack? from the operating system through the middleware to the application layer. If the community discovers an issue, it?s a straightforward task to isolate it and determine whether our collaboration platform, the middleware stack or a component of the OS distribution is the cause. We see little difference between proprietary software companies and open source vendors who customize the ?stack?. Once the ?stack? is customized, the democratization of software is violated and prevented. The GPL version of Open-Xchange Server is based on open standards. This means that all API?s, protocols, and data structures are transparent to the entire user community. Everyone can see how everything works together. If problems arise, the root cause can be identified. Although many in the industry bandy about the statement that users want ?one throat to choke?, we disagree. Users want control of their environment. And control is attained by having a transparent view of the entire stack. Open-Xchange believes that security is also better served by knowing what you are working with than becoming dependent on a single vendor?s ?black box?. Getting to the specifics of your review, we want to start by saying that we appreciate your comments and take them very seriously. That is another difference between a proprietary software company and an open source company. We like having our software put under the microscope. We want to understand all the imperfections so that we can work with the open source community and fix them. In the spirit of open peer review we would like to engage you in a dialogue ? we are not trying to disprove your statements ? we want to learn and improve our software. Our goal is to make the best open source software working with you. ?Open-Xchange Server integrates with the underlying operating system quite poorly?. This is a surprising statement since Open-Xchange Server has been ported to and is in use daily on over 40 different Linux and Unix distributions. It relies upon unmodified system services and a common stack of open source middleware. If you can provide specifics on the issues that you encountered in Bugzilla, we will work with you on resolving them. However, it is important to point out that the ?maintained? version of Open-Xchange Server which is available via subscription through our Maintenance Portal guarantees that the product integrates seamlessly with the underlying Linux distribution, in our case Red Hat and Suse Linux. The community version which tends to be less stable, but more flexible and more experimental is supported by the community through the .org wiki and forum. Our .org web site is visited more than 100,000 times each month. ?system updates need to be thoroughly tested to ensure that they do not ?break? Open-Xchange? This is a generic issue confronting all application software built on a proprietary or open source stack. The distributors of open source operating system software do not generally regression test their updates with each and every open source software project listed on SourceForge or FreshMeat. It is a relatively common experience that an update to one of the critical component that changes an API or a message structure or that interferes with the operation of the middleware stack might produce unintended consequences. This is why Open-Xchange (and all other providers of open source software) are very specific about the versions of the operating system that are ?maintained? and guaranteed. One important advantage of our ?maintained? products is that we guarantee that the APIs are stable. Hence operating system updates applied to the server will not break the application.. The ?maintained? product also receives backports of enhancements/bugfixes. While the open source project does not offer full API stability, it does follow a faster release cycle and the introduction of new features. ?applying an Open-Xchange product update is rather more time consuming than one would hope? We are working on this. Open-Xchange is learning from the experiences of its users. Each version of the software gets easier to use and install and update. We are constantly improving the Maintenance Portal and making it easier to navigate and use. Any specific suggestions? ?any configuration files which have been modified from the default configuration will need to be backed up,? Thank you for pointing out an important administrative step that must be taken when installing any software. Since each open source project is developed and supported by a different community, it is likely that installation of a new application or middleware component will result in changes to system configuration files. This means that a well informed system administrator will back up the system prior to the installation of any new software components. Your second set of comments deal with the Outlook OXtender. We acknowledge that integrating with proprietary software via closed standards is difficult. In fact, your comments further highlight the superiority of the open source software model. You also correct about the importance of the Outlook OXtender. For the open source collaboration software to succeed, it has to work with Outlook otherwise that large community of users will not directly experience the power of the open source model. Because we do not have access to the Outlook source code and the API?s are not well documented, working with Outlook is like ?nailing jello to the wall?. Since Outlook also has its own inherent instability, often we can?t figure out why an error or crash has occurred. Finally, we believe that Outlook?s implementation of open standards such as IMAP and Window?s implementation of WebDAV are purposely flawed. Microsoft has made sure that Outlook works better with its proprietary software, Exchange, than with open standards as a way of inhibiting open source competition. One example is the weird way Outlook stores IMAP ?Sent Mail?. We are working very hard to overcome these intentional obstacles and make Outlook work seamlessly with open source software and open standards. All the open source software companies are struggling with Outlook. Zimbra still does not offer Task synchronization. Criticizing Zimbra for this imperfection, however, is not in the interest of the open source movement ? such criticism just plays into the hands of the proprietary incumbents. We need to support each other in the struggle against the proprietary incumbents. Each product has its strengths and weaknesses. Let?s review the strengths of our product. 11 collaboration modules. Groupware functions like forums, bulletin boards, knowledge and bookmark repositories. Pervasive rights management (Smart Permissions) and the ability to link all collaboration objects to each other (Smart Links). The integration of our email and document modules in Documail is a unique feature. ?This however isn?t my greatest aversion. The OXtender Outlook plug-in is rather unstable; the appointment functions of Outlooks calendar (Accept, Tentative or Decline) do not work and in fact have buggy side effects which in themselves make the OXtender a non-starter.? First, let me respond by pointing out some of the good things about the Outlook OXtender. First, it synchronizes virtually everything between Outlook and Open-Xchange Server: email (private and subscribed folders), calendar (private, shared and public including Categories, Free/Busy, Resources), contacts (private, shared and public), and tasks (private, shared and public). Currently, the ?Accept, Tentative or Decline? feature is marked as a beta feature and this is mentioned during the installation procedure. It could be viewed as an mistake to provide beta functionality in the ?maintained? product, but we wanted to give users the first iteration as soon as possible, so we could gather feedback. ?The shared contacts functionality is a little better but still buggy and data in Outlook often loses sync with the server.? With respect to contacts, we would be happy to diagnose the issues that you encountered if you can provide us with more specifics, such as the log files. We haven?t heard about this problem before and we have not been able to reproduce it. Again, we hope that you are using the latest version of the OXtender which is available in the Maintenance Portal, Version 4.0.16. The sixteen shows how quickly we are revving the product ? almost once per month. ?For single site installations without the need for shared resources? Finally, this statement in the review has been misunderstood by some of the commentators. Open-Xchange is a groupware product and one of its primary design points is the ability to share all of the collaboration objects. Hence, Open-Xchange servers lets the user share calendars, contacts, tasks, projects, forums, knowledge, bookmarks and email. The ?subscribe function? in the email module is a very powerful tool for organizations. We use it internally to share folders of emails related to support, sales, info and the partner network. Please contact us at info@open-xchange.com or through Bugzilla and we will organize a response to the problems you have encountered and get to work fixing them.

tyler.poland
tyler.poland

I don't see any comments in the article regarding a solution for PIM. We currently use the WildFire Jabber server, and are satisfied with its functionality even though some of the clients haven't quite matured yet.

stephen_cryan
stephen_cryan

I'm surprised that there is not a single mention of Lotus Notes/Domino. A remarkably stable and versatile solution that is mature and feature rich whilst adhering to standards. It will run on a variety of Operating Systems (Windows, Linux, AIX, etc) and is very simple to set up. I know the client isn't popular with users used to Outlook Express but the new version Hannover has a brand new interface that will appeal to Lotus Notes and Outlook user alike.

phxbruzer
phxbruzer

I've been using DeskNow for over a year and a half and have loved it's features. www.desknow.com

Vandy-SJ
Vandy-SJ

Another mature non-Exchange alternative is MDaemon (http://www.altn.com/) Email Server that is IMAP (not MAPI) based, and offers an additional Outlook Connector that provides collaborative calendaring/scheduling like Exchange. The product (Pro version recommended) is Windows-based, includes its own client interface if you don't want to use Outlook or Outlook Express, and provides Web-based client access that is also mobile device compatible. I use my Windows Mobile 5.0 smart phone to retrieve and send email while on the road. MDaemon is cost effective for small, medium, and large businesses. I particularily like the built-in, server-based Spam Assassin feature, and the latest MDaemon version (v9.5) offers SecurityPlus which includes inline anti-virus scanning and zero-hour virus outbreak protection. Add features to suit your needs, and the features integrate seamlessly with the base product. I've been using MDaemon for over five years for my business, and it just gets better with each release.

JFO
JFO

We have around 120 employees in 6 offices nation wide. Sharing the Calendar is a must for us. That would be a deal breaker. Anyone know of a good web base calendar sharing software?

maye
maye

Great Post. You just saved me a lot of time testing this for our small company. I'm not sure I could risk implementing this without a more stable Outlook connector (OXtender) as this is a fairly important factor in my decision on what mail server to run. Have you or anyone else had any experience with Zimbra? http://www.zimbra.com/ It's use of Ajax seem fairly nifty and I think $25 per user per year for a license is reasonable.

draciron
draciron

PIM is another place Linux really shines. Gaim is the best multi-protocol IM client I've seen. It covers pretty much every protocol I've ever wanted to use. Though for IRC I tend to use IRC dedicated clients. There are dozens of Jabber clients. I've used Gaim anytime I've wanted to do Jabber but there are lots of dedicated clients for Jabber, MSN, IRC, ICQ and AIM. For Yahoo IM the only ones I know of that support YM is Gaim and the Linux version of YM provided by Yahoo. Use Gaim. Yahoo's Linux version is a sorry excuse. It gets the job done but barely. There are also dozens of protocols that only run on Nix varients and a wide number of clients for those. I suggest trying Gaim. Saves a whole lot of effort. I use it for YM, AIM and MSN myself.

safesax2002
safesax2002

My company (non-profit) uses Kerio Mailserver(www.kerio.com). It runs on Windows, Linux (Red Hat and SUSE), and Mac OS X. We run it on Fedora Core 4. There are too many features to list here so I would invite you to check out their website. Overall, it seems to be a good Exchange alternative. There are some problems we have had though. 1. Shared calendars - can't specify whose calendar is whose when in Calendar tab in Outlook 2003; have to use the folder list view. 2. Kerio tabs and the built-in Spam/Not Spam buttons will occasionally and randomly disappear in Outlook. 3. No offline caching. They are in the process of doing this but they won't say how much longer we need to wait. They have said that they have been working on it for a long time, according to the forums. The main features important to me are: 1. Built-in McAfee Anti-virus (optinoal) plus additional plugin for another AV engine. 2. Uses Spam Assassin with controls for users to report spam messages themselves. 3. Support for POP, IMAP, MAPI, and Web mail (full and mini-versions) (all protocols non-secured or secured, your choice; we use both) 4. Support for Pocket PC, Palm Pilot, Blackberry, WAP (although they are dropping this in there upcoming major version release)(see their knowledgebase) 5. Support is quick to get back to you. They will even provide support when using their trial (30-day). 6. Low subscription rate for upgrades and support. Again, there are way too many features to list all of them so check out their website.

maye
maye

Vandy-SJ - MDaemon looks like a very easy product to introduce to a company and has some really great features. From your experience, what do you think of it's current price as this is what most small companies will take as their #1 factor for purchasing a product. Do you also make use of the upgrade protection?

dagar
dagar

Zimbra has share calendars and contacts. They will soon have shared email folders.

jpb
jpb

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Scalix (www.scalix.com). It has Outlook and Evolution connectors, AJAX web client, and plugins for AV, Antispam, etc. The best part is if you only need to connect 25 or less people to Outlook you can get the community edition for free. I've been using it for a year now and have been really impressed with it's performance. I chose not to use the AV and antispam plugins and went with the free version of mailcleaner.

NOW LEFT TR
NOW LEFT TR

"You just saved me a lot of time testing this for our small company" How So?

dagar
dagar

We got hit by an Exchange virus that took it to its knees, time to move on. I took a look at OpenXCahnge back in March. It seemed full featured, but the web interface was not up to snuff (it may be now). We are currently using Zimbra, approx 65 people. It is almost to the point of being an outlook replacement in a web browser. The only major thing that it is missing now is tasks. They are bringing that out in the very near future. It now has smartphone sync. They are also playing around with incorporating a wiki. (that feature is still in beta) The outlook connector only works with outlook 2003. We use the web interface. They have put a vmware image up for you to try. (go to the vmware appliances site to find it).

Vandy-SJ
Vandy-SJ

My personal experience, I think the price is well worth the product. I've tried other email server products, and they usually lack a function, feature, ease of use, or ease to manage that eventually drove me to keep looking. There are a lot of functions and valuable features in this product, and - for me - it offers convenient ways to use and manage it. You won't get that in a low cost product. It also saves me time by letting me get back to work and not monitor it during the day. Unfortunately I typically get over 5,000 messages a day to my domain which are mostly Spam, and MDaemon's Spam Assassin catches over 90% (more like 96%) of the Spam before it reaches my Inbox. Yet I get every email I need that comes from domains and specific email addresses that I specify in MDaemon's white list. You can tweek MDaemon to be more efficient on Spam if you wish. Not having to 'clean out' Spam from my Inbox is a big time saver. Put a price on what this could mean to you in your organization. TCO applies here. I don't mind paying a little extra for this level of service. Alt-N issues several updates each year for the MDaemon product, and I get them free through my Upgrade Protection subscription. There are bug fixes in each update, as well as improved performance and new functions that stay up-to-date with email and messaging technology. The new SecurityPlus feature is a good example of staying up-to-date. I recently upgraded my v9.0.4 MDaemon to v9.5.0 through my Upgrade Protection (no additional cost). Version 9.5.0 improved multi-threading, added a new security feature, improved Spam Assassin, and fixed a few bugs. The performance improvement was noticeable. I'm running my MDaemon on an older P3-550 x2 CPU server with 512MB of system memory and Windows 2000 Server. This is not the ideal platform, but it still performs quite well. I hope this helps.

kwandtke
kwandtke

SCALIX and ZIMBRA both look pretty good to me. One other feature that I think would be handy .. internally .. is IM. I've had it at other places I've worked and frankly at my new company we don't have it and I'm going thru withdrawl. I've used IM when on an Exchange system and NotesBuddy when in a Lotus Notes environment .. both I found very handy.