ServersOpen-Xchange Continues to Deliver Solid Collaboration

Open-Xchange Continues to Deliver Solid Collaboration

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It’s been a while since I’ve had to put together a messaging solution for a client. For smaller businesses, it’s usually easier to point them to a solution like Gmail Apps for Your Domain, while midsize businesses can be ramped up to Exchange or Zimbra, should they need it.

Full-featured collaboration and messaging is not beyond the reach of small- to medium-sized businesses. Open-Xchange, an open source collaboration server, scales very well into any size organization, thanks to a variety of delivery systems.

There’s another open source messaging solution, though, that scales quite well into the SMB space, and it gives you the flexibility to install locally or use it as a software as a service utility: Open-Xchange.

Actually, since its beginnings as an Exchange alternative for SMBs, Open-Xchange has stretched a bit beyond just “messaging solution,” although it still manages to do that pretty well. The flagship product, Open-Xchange Server, is regarded as a full collaborative platform, particularly with the addition of the Infostore document sharing module.

After running Open-Xchange through some paces, it’s fair to say that collaboration software is an accurate label, but where this application really shines is how well it fits into any given organization. That’s because Open-Xchange is delivered in multiple ways, depending on how you need it.

First up is the standard Server Edition, which sits quite nicely on Debian Etch, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 or Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5. There’s a whole slew of additional software requirements, too, like a MySQL database, Oracle Java VM 1.5, and an IMAP server such as Cyrus, Courier, Dovecot, UW IMAP. The good news is that this is also bundled up as a nice package, so you don’t have to go hunting for individual packages. However, you will need to know how to configure all of these services, which requires a fair amount of expertise. There’s also no GUI configuration tools for the Server Edition.

The same holds true for the Hosting Edition, which delivers the Open-Xchange services to users as a Web app, which you can test drive as a user on the Open-Xchange Preview Server site.

In between the Server Edition and the Hosting Edition is the Advanced Server Edition, which features the same Web-based GUI found in the Hosting Edition.

The final Open-Xchange solution, which also features the Web front-end, is the Open-Xchange Appliance Edition (AE), a completely self-contained appliance that uses a wizard-based interface to get an instance of Open-Xchange running on your network very quickly. To view just the Open-Xchange functionality, this review focuses on the Open-Xchange AE.

Installation and Configuration

What’s interesting about the Open-Xchange AE is how much it behaves like the former Open-Xchange Express Edition, which was a self-contained Ubuntu-based system that also could be installed as an ISO image on a physical or virtual machine. There’s more features in AE, of course, but curiously, while Express Edition was based on Ubuntu, AE is based on vanilla Debian GNU/Linux — installation of which was wrapped by an installer from Univention, a German company that puts together custom Linux solutions for clients.

Installation was text-based, but very straightforward — I was able to fill in all of the needed information for AE without really having to scramble around for it. Anyone with a modicum of messaging server experience should have no problem entering the initial settings. In fact, most of the installation time was taken up by the installation itself … apparently there’s a lot to configure in the creation of the AE, which had my virtual machine (VM) thinking for quite a while.

There were zero Open-Xchange problems in installation — the only problem was user error, when I forgot to set my VM’s network interface as a physical bridge emulator and then proceeded to wonder why the browser interface wouldn’t come up when I pointed it at the static IP address I created within the configuration settings. A quick virtual card change, and boom, I was on track.

Using Open-Xchange

When you first run Open-Xchange, another graphics-based wizard will walk you through the process of connecting to existing services you might be using. I pointed it as my Google Apps for Your Domain account, and my information was pulled in smoothly.

The interface of Open-Xchange looks quite a bit like Outlook and Thunderbird, although the lines were a bit cleaner than the last time I touched one of those clients.

The interface is rich with possibilities, with easy to understand Filter configuration, account setup, and — interestingly enough — a connection to existing messaging accounts through the e-mail interface. Or so appearances warranted. I tried plugging into one of my Twitter accounts and was unable to connect due to a persistent 401 authentication error. If this gets to working, the capability to connect to Twitter or Facebook within the Open-Xchange client would indeed be handy.

I appreciated the intuitive design of the layout. I had no problems figuring out where the settings were for everything, and configuring the settings my account was very simple.

Backing out to the administrative interface was a little less intuitive. This was done from the / directory of the base Open-Xchange server I’d created, using the Univention Directory Manager. It was here that I could add users, groups, and create policies and shares. Nothing too strenuous, but the interface did seem less dynamic and clunkier. Still, it got the job done, and I was able to edit policies pretty easily.

There’s much to be said for this kind of ease of use. The fact that someone like me, who delves into messaging systems only when required, can pick up Open-Xchange and figure it out in less than an hour, sends a clear signal that this is a robust app put together well enough to fit a wide range of expertise. This, in turn, reflects positively on Open-Xchange; fitting well within an organization is not always about the number of seats you’re trying to accommodate.

Brian Proffitt is a technology expert who writes for a number of publications. Formerly the Community Manager for and the Linux Foundation, he is the author of 20 technology books, including his latest, Take Your iPad to Work.

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