Getting Started With Zimbra

By Juliet Kemp (Send Email)
Posted Oct 9, 2009


Zimbra Server is an email and collaboration server for Linux or Mac OS X. It can run email, group calendaring, address book/contacts software, and instant messaging, as well as deal with file and web document management. There's a (free) Zimbra desktop client available, and the server can also sync with Outlook and Thunderbird. A free and open source version of the server software is available that doesn't include support or software subscription. The alternative is to pay the company for a couple of extra features and support (see the comparison table for more information about the different versions). The FOSS version of the sourcecode is under the Yahoo Public License, and the binaries are under the Zimbra Public End-User License Agreement.

Zimbra Server is an email and collaboration server that can run email, group calendaring, address book/contacts software, and instant messaging as well as deal with file and web document management on Linux or Mac OS X. We take it for a spin on Debian.

Note that you must turn off all currently running LDAP, web server, mail server and other software when you install Zimbra. It makes various system changes that may break other apps. So really you want a dedicated server for it (which may or may not be a nuisance depending on your setup).

As always, the first hurdle to clear is installation. I tried the Debian 4.0 binary: Unfortunately, there's no version for the current Debian stable release. As this isn't a proper Debian package, it can't install requirements, only tell you about them, so you may need to install a couple of packages via apt-get. However, the lack of correct platform information means the package names aren't necessarily correct. The install requests libgmp3, whereas what is required is libgmp3c2, which was already installed.

In the end I had to edit util/utilfunc.sh to replace libgmp3 with libgmp3c2. Different package names should be recognized according to your platform for the supported platforms. Before the package installation stage, I was also asked to edit /etc/hosts. The 127.0.0.1 line need contain only localhost, not any hostname.

Having sorted the package name problem out, the lack of Debian 5.0 support causes another installation abort a few stages down the line. To get past this, edit util/modules/packages.sh to include this line:

PLATFORM="DEBIAN4.0"

just above the line where it checks what $PACKAGE is. You'll then need to run ./install.sh --platform-override (and hit 'Y' when you get to the 'install anyway?' question). You also have to downgrade a set of Perl packages to Etch (see this helpful blog post – you'll need to download the old versions manually and install them with dpkg -i.

Obviously, these issues are the price one pays for trying to install on an unsupported system. However, Debian lenny has been out for a while now (and has been available as testing for much longer!), and I'm not terribly impressed by a piece of software that requires an older version of a very common distro.

Once I got past these problems, the install itself was pretty straightforward. Most things are managed for you, and the questions asked are handled clearly. It claims to need 5GB of space, but I was able to install it without any issues onto a filesystem with rather less spare than that (3.6GB) using the -x option. Obviously, if you're running it seriously, the data is likely to start eating up space.

When doing the final setup (as per the quick start guide on the web site), it complains if you're using Iceweasel (apparently it's not recognized as being Firefox-equivalent), but it doesn't actually stop you from logging in, and setting up a new account is easy. Note that you'll also need to set the password separately before the user logs in.

The admin console is quite slow, although this would doubtless be less of a problem on a newer machine than mine. It's Java-based, so performance will depend on how well the virtual machine is tuned for your particular setup.

Having set up the basics, I downloaded Zimbra Desktop to try the end-user experience. It appeared a bit ugly while doing the initial setup, but once the desktop itself was running it was fine, and setup (both initially and thereafter) was straightforward. The default settings for mail and others seem sensible (mail is text-only by default!), but the tab order wasn't set on at least some panes, which is irritating. Bizarrely, there seems to be no way to start the client up over a remote X connection – it runs as a background service and is accessed via the menu bar at the bottom of the screen, which you don't get when running X over ssh. (Or at least, I couldn't find any other way of getting at it.)

Being only one person, I was limited in how much I could experiment with the group calendaring and other similar things. However, Zimbra Desktop has iCal feed integration, and it seems to be possible to sync between Google Calendar and Zimbra and to import Google Calendar feeds so you can see them within Zimbra. There are plenty of options for sharing documents, calendars, and so on: It's structured very much like standard connectivity software. I liked the "Tasks" list option — handy to have your to-do list interoperable with your mail, calendar, and shared documents!

Zimbra Server looks has much promise. In particular, if you're looking for a desktop-based calendaring/sharing solution that operates in the same sort of way as Outlook, then it's worth investigating. However, I think it's a real shame it doesn't support server installation on Debian stable – hopefully this will be updated soon.

Note: This was written prior to the release of Zimbra 6.0. There are several end-user improvements in the new version, including a read receipt option and some calendar usability improvements. There's also more integration for zimlets — like the Zimbra Social zimlet that hooks into various social apps such as Twitter. So now it's even more worth checking out!

Juliet Kemp has been messing around with Linux systems, for financial reward and otherwise, for about a decade. She is also the author of "Linux System Administration Recipes: A Problem-Solution Approach" (Apress, 2009).

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