Enterprise Unix Roundup: Singing an Open Source Tune

Enterprise Unix Roundup: Singing an Open Source Tune

October 6, 2005

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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.

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In Other News

» Given the chance, some people will go on and on about why Linux is not ready for the desktop. Since we at Enterprise Unix Roundup regularly make use of Linux as we sift through the World o' Unix, we remain unconvinced these folks actually know what they're talking about.

Still, it is a little bit disheartening to know that as of now, no major PC manufacturer in the United States has come out with a pre-loaded Linux machine for the U.S. market.

So we were tickled pink when we heard that Dell, the PC maker that is apparently too confused by the sheer number of Linux distributions to go with one, did the next best thing and started shipping boxes without an onboard operating system.

And there was much rejoicing.

For about a minute. Then, when we checked the online Dell catalog, we noticed something interesting: Dell machines without an operating system were selling for more than the exact same machine preloaded with Windows. Instead of a Microsoft tax on OEM machines, as so many believed, we're now wondering if there is actually a subsidy from Redmond to get its software preloaded out the door?

Specifically, the Dimension 5150 (with Windows) sells for $649, while the Dimension 5150n (sans operating systems) goes for $579. The only difference between the machines is the n-series box has a floppy drive and the Windows box does not. Now, we haven't shopped for floppy drives lately, but it seems that $70 is a lot to tack on to the price of a PC. More so, when you consider that the cost of the operating system should be removed. Did the Pentagon buy these floppy drives? Or is this Dell trying to get more money out of the sale now that Microsoft subsidies are not in the equation?

Certainly interesting questions. We eagerly await the answers.

» For the first part of the week, the hype was huge: Google and Sun Microsystems were going to have a press conference on Tuesday. No one knew what it was about, but there was rampant speculation.

Would there be an Web-enabled version of OpenOffice.org for Google users (which is oh, what, the entire Internet population)? Would Microsoft be able to survive? We waited with anxious, bated breath for the big news. And when the conference came, the press shifted forward on their seats to hear ...

Google was going to have Java tools on its toolbar!

Um. Hello? Is this thing on?

That's right, Google Hype Mania 2005 ground to a screeching halt when the much-anticipated announcement was revealed to be none other than a low-key technology partnership that would have Java tools highlighted in Google's browser toolbar. Thoughts of a titanic battle between Google and Microsoft sank faster than, well, the Titanic.

But hold on, faithful reader, there could be something to this whole Web-enabled OpenOffice.org bit. We may be dating ourselves, but we remember that before Sun owned StarOffice (the proprietary ancestor to OpenOffice.org), the previous owner, Star Division, was making plans to make a future version of StarOffice — you guessed it — Web-enabled. But then the purchase by Sun and the subsequent dot-bomb seemed to make those plans disappear.

But we remember them, and if they are indeed tucked away in some dusty back office at Sun, you can bet they won't be there for long. Indeed, they are very likely being dusted off and adapted for OpenOffice.org 2.0. This would give Sun, and its new buddy Google, a very good head start to making their Web-enabled office suite a reality.

Elsewhere in the Corral

Recent relevant articles about enterprise Unix

  • How do you migrate your whole company to Linux? How about some ideas from a Linux company that's doing it? LinuxPlanet takes a look at Novell's internal migration plans and what it means for its Linux and Unix deployments.
  • Wall Street is a big potential customer for Linux. It's high speed, high performance, and high money. So what's holding it back?
  • Google, Microsoft, AOL, eBay, and SBC are all onto something. Maybe now is the time to take a serious look at the changing face of telecom, according to this Enterprise IT Planet article.

Tips of the Trade

Unix and Linux admins are familiar with using tail to monitor log files in real time:

# tail -f /var/log/secure

MultiTail takes this to the next level and monitors multiple files simultaneously. MultiTail runs on pretty much any Linux or Unix. It uses ncurses to create multiple windows, showing different monitored files. You can monitor a complete directory of files by using wildcards; MultiTail will automatically switch to the file with the most recent activity. Canny use of a few simple regular expressions colorizes the output, or beeps the PC speaker, so important bits can be highlighted. The update frequency is configurable, so slow links need not be overwhelmed.

The simplest way to use MultiTail is to name some files with no options:

# multitail file1 file2 file3

This opens the three files in three windows, with status lines under each window. Then, you can run various commands as the files are monitored. Press the "b" key to bring up a scrolling menu; select the window, then navigate up and down with the arrow keys or PgUp-PgDn. The default is 100 lines. To increase this, use the -m or -M flag:

# multitail -M 200 file1 file2 file3
# multitail -m 200 file1 file2 -m 300 file3

The big -M sets the value for all files; the little -m sets the value for only the following file.

MultiTail can also monitor command output from programs. This is a neat example from the MultiTail manual:

# multitail -R 3 -l "netstat -p tcp"

This displays all TCP activity as it occurs — new connections and closing connections. You'll find this excellent utility at www.vanheusden.com/multitail, and the documentation at www.vanheusden.com/multitail/manual.html.

Carla Schroder writes the Tips of the Trade section of Enterprise Unix Roundup. She also appears on Enterprise Networking Planet and Linux Planet, covering Linux from the desktop to the server room. She is the author of the Linux Cookbook and the upcoming "Linux Networking Cookbook."

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