Enterprise Unix Roundup: Singing an Open Source Tune

By Amy Newman (Send Email)
Posted Oct 6, 2005


Main     In Other News     Elsewhere in the Corral     Tips of the Trade
Zimbra Collaboration Suite may have what it takes to change the messaging and open source arenas. An empty Dell box is worth more than a Dell box with Windows. MultiTail takes tail to the next level, monitoring multiple files simultaneously.

It's not often we encounter a product that wows us, especially in the messaging and collaboration space where Exchange is the standard bearer and the competition is often a pale imitation with a few minor additional features tossed in.

Zimbra is an exception. The open source collaboration suite (whose name comes from the Talking Head song of the same name) has been available since August, but earlier this week it took a great leap forward when it announced the product, currently available in public Beta, will be generally available next month.

Last week, we met with Zimbra President and CTO Scott Dietzen (formerly CTO of BEA Systems) and Vice President of Marketing and Development John Robb to get the inside scoop on Zimbra. By the time our meeting wrapped up, we wondered if we were in a time warp where venture capital flowed and phrases like "the e-mail experience wasn't what it could be," were provocative rather than tired.

We will admit to not taking the product out for a full test drive, but we did observe a lengthy demo, and what caught and held our attention is the approach that Zimbra is taking and the impact we believe the product may have in the Linux/Unix messaging space as well as the open source sphere.

Zimbra Collaboration Suite seeks to change how both admins and end users interact with messaging products. E-mail, Dietzen points out, has not changed much since it found its way to the desktop. The new product is built around three tenets: innovation, open source, and compatibility.

The open source collaboration suite has opted for the Mozilla license, Dietzen said, as not all of 20-odd products rolled into Zimbra are open source, thus precluding the GPL. The server is also compatible with a number of commercial applications, including Active Directory, and admins can port to any Java platform, although the product officially runs on Red Hat Linux (both the Enterprise version and Fedora Core) and Mac OS X.

On the server side, the three pain points Zimbra sought to soothe were storage consumption, backup and recovery, and archiving and compliance. With Zimbra, storage is reduced by as much as 80 percent (although a 15 percent to 20 percent reduction is more common) because messages and attachments reside only once on each server. Domino, in contrast, keeps one copy of every message for every user who receives it, while Exchange keeps one copy of of each message per storage group.

Admins can restore mailboxes on a per-user basis — not on an enterprise-wide or storage group basis, as is the case with the competition.

What impressed us most about Zimbra is that it knows its limits. With Exchange and Domino "owning the market," according to Robb, it has opted to focus on Linux and Unix (specifically Mac OS X). With the jury still out on where Domino is going, and a large pool of Exchange 5.5 customers faced with a migration no matter what they choose, an enterprise-class open source offering is an interesting addition to the mix.

The collaboration suite can also be used for archival and compliance purposes, as it indexes all e-mail messages and their attachments when they hit the server. This has an advantage on the client side as well, as users can quickly search for needed information.

Zimbra offers myriad other enhancements on the client side. The bulk of these enhancements are made possible through AJAX and the Web services it employs to integrate the e-mail application with the end user's client (which can be anything from Outlook, Thunderbird/Sunbird, Apple Mail/iCal, Evolution and Eudora) or, in the case of Webmail, browser (Internet Explorer and Firefox).

Web services makes the options fairly limitless, but some examples we saw were these: scrolling over a URL in a message brought up a small image of a Web site within the document; moving the cursor over a street address in an e-mail message yielded a map from Google (also within the e-mail message) pin-pointing that address; e-mail addresses within a message can be added to the contacts folder with a single mouse click; hovering over a date within a message launches the calendar, enabling the date to be blocked out; and scrolling over a telephone number offers the option of launching VoIP service, such as Skype, from a phone number listed in an e-mail message.

Perhaps the most practical application we saw involved making data available through Web services protocols. Mousing over and right-clicking a purchase order number that appeared in an e-mail message brought up transaction details from an accounting or CRM application.

Another nifty feature is that e-mail attachments can be converted from their native formats to HTML, a particularly appealing option that eliminates the need to launch Adobe Acrobat, for example, to search the contents of a PDF document.

The only notable functionality missing is presence management and instant messaging. However, the product is XMPP-based, and does integrate with Jabber, so its open source nature, may alter this, should the market demand it.

Not surprisingly, Dietzen cites Zimbra's chief competitors as GroupWise, Domino, and Exchange. While the product is as feature-rich as the competition's, its pricing isn't. A free-of-charge, open source version is available for download from the site, as are the binaries. For $30 per mailbox per year, however, organizations also get cross-mailbox search capabilities, disaster recovery tools, support, and a number of other closed-source add-ons.

What impressed us most about Zimbra is that it knows its limits. With Exchange and Domino "owning the market," according to Robb, it has opted to focus on Linux and Unix (specifically Mac OS X). With the jury still out on where Domino is going, and a large pool of Exchange 5.5 customers faced with a migration no matter what they choose, an enterprise-class open source offering is an interesting addition to the mix.

True to its open source culture, Zimbra is seeking user input on where to next channel its efforts. An online poll shows Debian as the next favored port, with Windows garnering a decent response. Dietzen said that although the company has the technology to port the server to Windows, there are other opportunities out there, and the company wants to be sure that the demand is there. Currently, the savvy admin can port Zimbra to Windows, but the company offers no quality assurance for the port.

Mail servers and clients are a dime a dozen, particularly in the Windows space. We've encountered many small players, some with good product, some not so much, that believe they have the Exchange equivalent for small businesses. What Zimbra has done is scrap the Exchange model for what it believes a mail server should be, and it has bypassed Windows.

How the market responds will say much about open source and Linux. A buzz is already building in the open source community, the next hurdle is the leap to the mainstream. One we're optimistic the vendor is capable of making.

>> To Other News
>> Elsewhere in the Corral
>> To Tips of the Trade

Page 1 of 2


Comment and Contribute

Your name/nickname

Your email

(Maximum characters: 1200). You have characters left.