ServersAn Open-Xchange of Communication

An Open-Xchange of Communication

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Open-Xchange Server: A best-of-breed open source collaboration, messaging, and authentication server.
Despite its many name changes and volley for ownership, Open-Xchange Server has always stood apart from the crowd. Is the latest version of the open source collaboration, messaging, and authentication server a viable alternative to Microsoft Exchange?

The Open-Xchange Server has a somewhat confusing history. It spawned from Netline, which then contracted with SUSE to roll the technology into SUSE’s OpenExchange server. When Novell purchased SUSE, it continued the arrangement, dropping the  “SUSE” from the product’s name.

Until Netline spun off  Open-Xchange, Inc., and released the core Open-Xchange code under the GPL. Currently, Open-Xchange, Inc., distributes both a commercial and a free open source version, and Novell appears to no longer sell it.

Despite being passed around like a baby with a loaded diaper, Open-Xchange is a powerhouse messaging and collaboration suite. If all you need is a POP3 or IMAP mailserver, Open-Xchange is overkill. (But then again, some organizations use the lumbering Microsoft Exchange behemoth for plain old e-mail, so go figure.) Open-Xchange is the star of the new generation of messaging and collaboration servers, and a sterling example of the power of free and fpen source development methodologies. It is based on the usual best-of-breed FOSS suspects: Postfix, OpenLDAP, Apache, Cyrus IMAP, Tomcat, and PostgreSQL, as well as various other bits and pieces.

Individually, these are all first-class applications. Knit them together, add nice graphical administration and user interfaces, and presto! Instant superpower messaging suite.

Of course, it isn’t quite that easy, and much credit goes to the developers. Open-Xchange Server 5, the latest release, packs in many improvements and boasts a comprehensive feature set:

  • E-mail
  • Webmail
  • Calendaring, both individual and group
  • Meeting coordination
  • Contact management, both shared and group
  • Document sharing
  • Cross-platform domain controller
  • Project management capabilities
  • Searchable knowledge base
  • Shared “Pin Board”
  • Personalizable to-do lists
  • PDA synchronization
  • Forums

All of these things are accessible via a well-designed single-sign-on Web interface. Most of them meet current groupware suite standards. But take a closer look at the document sharing and knowledge base modules. The document sharing has automatic versioning and file locking, which prevents conflicts and unintended overwriting. The knowledge base is a nice central store for things like company manuals and policies, how-tos for users, or anything that must be both archived and accessible.

Open-Xchange is most often compared to Microsoft’s Exchange server. Although it provides similar functionality, under the hood the products are very different. For example, Open-Xchange:

  • Can handle larger loads
  • Stores data in an open format
  • Can serve any client using a standards-compliant Javascript-enabled Web browser
  • Uses standard protocols
  • Is priced significantly lower
  • Is available in a free edition

One particularly significant difference is that the Samba OXtender turns Open-Xchange into a cross-platform domain controller, making Open-Xchange a great upgrade for a Windows NT domain. This alone will save a great deal of money in both server and client access licenses.

User Interfaces

The best way for users to hook up with Open-Xchange is through a Web browser, preferably not Internet Explorer. All the major graphical Web browsers seem to work equally well: Firefox, Opera, Netscape, Mozilla, Safari, and Konqueror. All of these outperform Internet Explorer in every way except malware-ability.

For users who for whatever reason think they need Outlook, Open-Xchange supports Outlook via the Outlook OXtender.

Open-Exchange supports all standard stand-alone e-mail clients that support IMAP, like Mutt, Pine, Outlook Express, Netscape Messenger, Eudora, KMail, Evolution, Thunderbird, Mozilla Mail, and so on. With these clients, however, you don’t get any groupware features, just e-mail. (Development is ongoing to bring full groupware support to Evolution.)

Migration Issues

If you’re starting from scratch, it’s an easy choice: Open-Xchange is, in our opinion, one of the best groupware or mail suites available today. If you’re thinking of migrating away from Microsoft Exchange, Open-Xchange, Inc. partners with several third-party vendors to provide migration assistance.

Anti-virus, Anti-spam

Open-Xchange does not provide any sort of slick interface for anti-virus or anti-spam software. It does work with any apps compatible with Postfix, but you’ll have to set it up manually. Anti-virus software is a necessity if you’re supporting Windows clients.

Open-Xchange Versions

The commercial Open-Xchange requires either Red Hat Enterprise Linux or SUSE Enterprise Server, and can be purchased in bundles that include the operating system.

The Free version of Open-Xchange allows for more adventurous usage, such as swapping individual components in and out and the option to run on a wider variety of operating systems (i.e., more Linux distributions, FreeBSD, Mac OS X, and pretty much any Unix-type system on which it can compile).

You may try before you buy with either the Open-Xchange LiveCD, or the Open-Xchange Virtual Appliance that runs on the free VMware Player. VMware Player runs on either Linux or Windows. Pricing starts at $299 for the Open-Xchange 5 Small Business Suite.

Resources, the commercial OX, the free OX

Pros: Can serve any client using a standards-compliant Javascript-enabled Web browser; Less expensive than Exchange; Cost-free option available.
Cons: No anti-virus or anti-spam support; Somewhat confusing nomenclature and history; Painful migration.

Reviewed by: Carla Schroder
Original Review Date: 05/04/2006
Original Review Version: 5.0

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