Saturday, December 30, 2006

Exchange Server Alternatives: Results So Far Part Deux

Yesterday I finished looking at the features of Open-Xchange, and today I have been looking at Zimbra's functionality. Zimbra helpfully gives us a chart comparing the various features of its five different edition. So as to compare apples to apples as far as possible, I am looking at the "Open Source Edition", i.e. the one that has no dollar signs attached to it.

Zimbra seems to spend a great deal of time boasting about it's Ajaxified (yes, I know it's not a word, but it's getting a lot of usage) email & calendar features. Ajax, or Asynchronous Javascript and XML, is an old technology that became incredibly trendy (and very useful) in late 2005 and 2006. It permits a web page to send a request to and receive a response from a remote server without reloading the entire page. This makes a web application appear to function much faster, as less data has to move around the Internet, and you only have to load the part of the page that has changed rather than all the HTML and images for the entire page. It's quite a useful technology, and we implement it on the vast majority of the web applications we build.

The feature set of the free edition of Zimbra is rather more limited than that of Open-Xchange. First, there is no Outlook connectivity; you have to spend money for that. Second, there is no inline display of HTML attachments for email. Third, there is no easy online backup/restore (which just seems insane to me, but there you go). In fact, in order to connect with Outlook and MAPI clients, you need to purchase the full "Network Professional Edition" -- presumably the most expensive, with an annual licensing fee, or a monthly subscription fee. How much does it cost? Well, that's a bit difficult to figure out without talking to a sales rep -- always a bad sign --but you do get a bit of information on the site:

Licenses are sold in blocks of 25 and priced on a sliding scale based on the size of your installation and business segment. For example, 75 Professional Edition mailboxes for a business are priced at $28/user/year; a non-profit for the same will be discounted 50%.
There is a bit more info on the site regarding pricing for the various editions. For example: for the Network Professional Edition for a business, the first 25 pack is set at $35/user/year. Assuming that you have a minimum of 25 users, then the annual cost is $875.00. This is all well and good, but 10 minutes on Froogle shows that I can get Exchange itself with an equivalent number of client access licenses for the same money or less -- and it's not an annual subscription.

So what's the point?

Next, I'm going to give Scalix a look.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Exchange Server Alternative: Results so far

So I've been working away, trying to identify the best alternative to Microsoft Exchange Server for my organization. I had initially narrowed the field down to two: Zimbra, and Open-Xchange. I've spent a few hours today going through the latter, and a fairly thorough review of the Open-Xchange site suggests that it supports the following:

  • Messaging (email)
  • Shared Calendars
  • Shared Tasks
  • Shared Contacts
  • Document sharing
  • Project portals (not entirely certain what this is, but if it is what I think it is, it looks promising)
  • User forums, bulliten boards
  • Knowledge base (sort of like a faq on steroids)
  • Bookmark repository (our own private
  • Support for Outlook (through a nifty api called the oxtender)
  • Support for Palm
  • Support for Samba
  • Support for SyncML
  • Advanced user management
  • Advanced messaging archival/reporting/retrieval
Wow. That exceeds my initial requirements list, and then some. There are, to be fair, a few missing elements -- spam & virus prevention are must haves, and network faxing would be nice. If my cursory read of the architecture is accurate, then I suspect none of these are going to be problematic (in fact, I might be able to stick my my existing smtp transport layer, and have to do nothing in this regard). This is an extremely well thought out package. I plan on reviewing Zimbra's featureset next, and then doing a test install of each package.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Exchange Server Alternative: Requirements

Quite often when dealing with a client -- particularly a new one -- I spend a great deal of time simply educating them on the need for sufficient planning prior to actually beginning a project. Like most IT firms, we call this the requirements phase, and out of it comes (naturally enough) the requirements document. Smaller clients often put up some resistance to this, and, much like an eager new developer, just want to jump right in and begin work. There are a number of rather serious problems with this approach. I find analogy usually helps in cases like this.

"Would you build a house without a blueprint?"
"Well... No..."
Well, they say that confession is good for the soul, and it is time to come clean. Perhaps it is the unusual feeling of relaxation that comes during the holiday season, or perhaps it is simple laziness, but whatever the case, I have not put sufficient planning into my "let's find a free, or at any rate reasonably inexpensive alternative to Microsoft Exchange Server" project.

I haven't even clearly articulated my objectives to myself, let alone in this particular forum.

Accordingly, I am making an early resolution this year: find out exactly what Exchange does, which of those features are going to be a requirement for my project, and enumerate other features that would be nice to have, but don't exist yet. Once an appropriate platform is chosen and installed, perhaps we can even complete add ons for whichever platform we choose, and release those for the benefit of others.

A quick read through the product features list on Microsoft's site lists these as must haves:
  • shared calendars
  • shared address books
  • easy integration with Microsoft Outlook
  • anti-spam
  • anti-virus
  • messaging records management
  • webmail access
  • pop3, pop3s, imap, imaps protocol support
  • smtp and smtps protocol support
  • flexible and sophisticated calendaring functionality
  • integration with popular PDAs for to-dos, calendars, etc.
Yes, those are what a child of the eighties would call "no brainers", but there you go. If you don't write it down, it didn't happen.

As I work through my research, I'll construct a "nice-to-have" list as well.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Exchange Server Alternatives: Update

I have been conducting some research into which platform will be the most appropriate to put in a system that will provide much the same functionality as Microsoft Exchange, without the cost and security vulnerabilities (which may or not be mythical; there is no question as to the cost - it's very real). This is the first of my DIY projects that I approach with some reluctance, as I personally do not use or like Outlook. However, many of my clients, contractors, etc. do, and I can understand their desire to have this functionality in place. So far, it looks like there are two viable alternatives that will do what I want, without serious limitations: Zimbra, and Open-Xchange. Both work within a browser, and permit use from other applications (most notably Microsoft Outlook).

I have a lot more work to do before I make my final determination, including setting up a test environment, some additional research, and serious testing, but I believe I have narrowed it down to these two.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Exchange Server Alternatives

We have been under some pressure from both clients and selected staff (curse them) who really, really want to have an Exchange server installed for our office. Although I have resisted for quite awhile, and continue to use a rock sold qmail installation for our email services, there are, I admit, some benefits to having Microsoft Exchange installed -- shared calendars, shared address books, and so forth. However, Microsoft Exchange is a pricey little thing, and I have heard countless horror stories about security.

Naturally, I am looking for a free, stable, secure alternative right now.

So far, I have come up with this list of possible alternatives:

  • eGroupware - a PHP based groupware solution, intended to be used with a web browser. Not a true replacement for exchange server.
  • Group-Office - like eGroupware, this is a PHP based groupware solution, intended to be used with a web browser. Not a true replacement for exchange server.
  • Open-Xchange - Hmmm... now this is more like it. Integrated SMTP & messaging server, integration with Samba, and "OXTenders", for connections with various non-browser applications. This sounds more like what I am looking for.
  • Kolab - From their site: "Kolab is a Groupware Solution for Emails, Appointments, Contacts and more. It supports mixed client environments (Outlook/KDE) because of an open storage format. Any email client speaking standard protocols can be served. For the full Kolab experience you need a Kolab Server and Kolab Clients. " A quick overview of the required software suggests that although this will connect with Exchange, it requires a "proprietary, [connector] with gratis 30 day evaluation", called "Toltec connector 2". Hey, I don't want to spend any money if I don't have to...
  • OGo - OpenGroupware
  • Zimbra
  • Open Source Outlook MAPI Connector
Update: A visitor suggests Scalix (, which looks very promising. It comes in two flavours - commercial, and "community edition." The latter is free, but limited to 25 users. I will include it in my research, though.

I have not done a great deal of research into any of these, but plan to do so over the holidays. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Asterisk via Live CD

While waiting for my various components to arrive for the Asterisk install, I decided to see if I could simply play around with soft phone technology, experiment, and so forth. I didn't actually accomplish anything so far, but I did stumble across this Live CD Asterisk product. In case you are unfamiliar with the concept, a Live CD is a rather nifty little thing -- it's a complete, task specific operating system on some bootable media (typically a CD ROM or DVD ROM, but you can use it on a compact flash card, USB key, etc. -- anything that has sufficient storage space and can boot your PC). This is a complete, fully functional Asterisk install on a CD ROM. I actually downloaded it, burned it, and used it to boot my PC. It worked -- at least I think it did. Once again, I'm waiting for some gear to arrive to be able to complete the install and see how it works.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Asterisk Update

It's been awhile since I have been able to post here -- November and December are typically very busy for me, and I have little time for extracurricular activities. However, I have managed to do some work on the Asterisk install. I've installed the base code on my backup server, which is now running the latest build of CentOS. It went smoothly, largely because I am unable to test anything as of yet -- I have not picked up the hardware necessary to complete the installation. I've decided to go with the Linksys Sipura SPA 3000 for my hardware requirements, for a couple of reasons. First, the box running Asterisk is a bit elderly, and having the FXO/FXS in a stand alone box will reduce the processor requirements; and second, the price is much better this way. I can pick the box up for as little as $115.00 CDN.

I hope to order one this month, and begin testing the application.