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Lightweight Linux e-mail platforms pack a punch
[March 27, 2006]

Lightweight Linux e-mail platforms pack a punch

(InfoWorld Electronic News Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)E-mail is a killer application. Your organization can become immobilized when messages dont flow. Servers need to be restarted for security patches. Whole infrastructures must be taken offline for costly hardware upgrades that provide redundancy or satisfy mailboxes bloated with duplicate attachments.

One way to break this never-ending routine is to go the Linux route for e-mail and calendaring. Before you dismiss this as totally unrealistic, given your significant investment in Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Notes/Domino, or Novell GroupWise, take some time to consider two strong Linux e-mail and calendar solutions: Scalix 10 and Zimbra Collaboration Suite 3.0.

Yes, Linux requires serious admin skills; fortunately, at the mail server, Scalix and Zimbra apply AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) strengths in creating GUI consoles; these ease maintaining user accounts.

Both products employ strong AJAX Web clients that are superior to the likes of, for example, OWA (Outlook Web Access). Functionality and cross-platform compatibility is so good that companies can seriously consider dropping desktop e-mail clients altogether. Of course, both vendors would be pleased for enterprises to scrap their existing mail systems, and both offer migration tools for this task. But the products also coexist nicely with, for example, Outlook clients and Active Directory.

Weighting everything, Scalix and Zimbra are laudable solutions to what may be your current fragile, high-cost e-mail setting.

Scalix 10

Scalix 10 is a robust application based on HP OpenMail, a product respected for its performance and scalability. Scalix adds many improvements and enhancements.

First, Outlook users can connect to a Scalix mail server without noticing any functional difference. Version 10 also solves whats been a persistent problem with desktop Linux: getting Novell Evolution to play nice with other mail systems. Scalix Connect for Evolution does the trick.

Many users, however, can forego e-mail software, because an advanced AJAX Web client, SWA (Scalix Web Access), has the look and functionality of a desktop application. Interoperability extends throughout Scalix. For example, messages retain their full formatting as they flow between the Scalix mail server, desktop clients, and Web clients. The same holds true for enterprise calendaring and scheduling, as users of disparate systems can see others busy time and make meeting appointments.

Scalix 10 sports a professional GUI setup app and a traditional Linux CLI. After I received help from Scalix engineers to get past odd Linux configuration barriers, installing Scalix server components took me 15 minutes. Setting up accounts, managing users and groups, and overseeing Scalix servers was easy from the Scalix Administration Console. But more detailed systems tasks, such as backup, are possible only with the CLI.

My testing of Scalix on the desktop started with Connect for Outlook; this adds a profile to Outlook for connecting to a Scalix mail server. The connect app can be automatically distributed and configured with SMS, Alteris, or other common deployment tools.

In each test -- creating public folders, managing rich text e-mail, creating calendar items, delegating tasks, updating contacts -- Outlook behaved as if I was working with an Exchange server. Moreover, I had no trouble creating local folders and working offline.

Scalix Connect for Evolution works much the same on Linux desktops. It allowed me to create, for instance, HTML messages that retained their formatting when viewed in Outlook.

SWAs multipane window, menus, and buttons offer an experience similar to that of Eudora, Outlook, or other e-mail clients. SWA has a familiar folder tree for organizing messages. Creating messages in plain text or HTML was no problem, nor was looking up addresses in the Scalix global directory, LDAP, or local address book. This high comfort level extended to working with the calendar.

SWA performance was fast, as the application and folders are cached on the local computer. I could compose and send new messages from the moment I logged in. Drag-and-drop functionality, which is uncommon for a Web app, allowed me to do all the expected desktop tasks, such as moving messages from one folder to another or rearranging calendar appointments. Furthermore, all features worked problem-free using Internet Explorer, Mozilla, and Firefox.

As opposed to OWA, SWA allows you to work with whole folders, rather than having to page through to find a message. However, I would like to see more robust search -- an edge for Zimbra.

For wireless e-mail, Scalix offers the separate NotifyLink for Scalix from Notify Technology. This is a combination gateway server that communicates with the Scalix mail server and clients. Although this does add a bit more complexity to a Scalix setup, its in line with other solutions in this class.

Going beyond client interoperability, Scalix also coexists with Exchange servers using TNEF (Transport Neutral Encapsulation Format). Implementing this is a larger project that would typically require Scalix professional services. Finally, Scalix has a certification program, ScalixReady, for spam, anti-virus, and commercial backup products. This allows IT managers to know whether Scalix 10 will work with tools already in place.

Scalix proved to me it knows its way around MAPI better that any non-Microsoft vendor Ive encountered. Combine that with SWAs rich functionality and the products Linux and OpenMail underpinning, and Scalix delivers an industrial-strength solution.

Zimbra Collaboration Suite 3.0

ZCS (Zimbra Collaboration Suite) 3.0 consists of a messaging server that users access with the AJAX Web client. This solution is available as an Open Source Edition and a Network Edition (which I tested). Network-only functions include a connector for Outlook 2003, searching of e-mail attachments (more than 200 types), and important administrative capabilities, such as individual mailbox restore.

Still, both versions are rooted in open source and Web services, which gives organizations tricked-up extensibility. For example, a user could hover over a purchase order number in an e-mail and see remaining funds, then click to approve the expenditure request. These mashups (called Zimlets) can extend to external systems for tracking shipments, making VoIP phone calls, or viewing maps of locations.

Installing ZCS requires basic Linux command-line skills, and the process is well documented. Performing the basic setup and then provisioning accounts from the AJAX console required a few hours. I enabled Active Directory integration, which permitted single sign-on and access to global address lists. Moreover, I had no trouble migrating accounts from an Exchange 2003 server to Zimbra.

Using the AJAX client revealed many fundamental ways Zimbra makes e-mail and collaboration faster -- and more seamless. Sure, theres the familiar folder structure for organizing e-mail. But, as with any e-mail client, it takes time to compartmentalize messages -- and theres no guarantee youll be able to find items later. For this reason, I really liked Zimbras rich search, which allowed me to find messages according to almost any criteria. Moreover, I saved these searches -- essentially giving me virtual folders to manage hundreds of views. If enabled, searches can also cross mailboxes, helpful for both basic research and compliance auditing.

ZCS 3.0 includes intelligent right-clicking throughout, another significant productivity benefit. When I right-clicked on an e-mail address, for example, the system did a quick search of all messages from that person.

An unusual collaboration feature allowed me to publish my mailbox content as RSS and Atom feeds; I can see these subscriptions helping co-workers keep informed of project changes with little effort.

The basic parts of the Zimbra client also worked well. For instance, rich text formatting made quick work of composing e-mails. The in-built viewer displayed hundreds of attachment types as HTML, so theres no need for the originating application. Furthermore, the iCal-based calendar provided all the functions I could think of.

For organizations needing to retain Outlook clients, ZCS Connector for Outlook 2003 is a good solution. It performed mail, calendar, and contact list synchronization -- and worked in offline mode -- without any issues.

On the back end, IT staff will find that ZCS offers similar efficiencies. This starts with storage management; Zimbra saves one copy of attachments, which are then shared. The server also has advanced caching, which can accelerate message retrieval from the server.

Maintaining the system shouldnt task admins. From the Web console, I performed full backups with Zimbra online. A great feature restores individual mailboxes, while keeping all other mailboxes accessible.

To help with uptime, ZCS comes bundled with SpamAssassin and ClamAV protection. Furthermore, you can enforce various checks, including attachment blocking; stop messages of a certain size; and validate senders IP addresses or domains. Theres native integration with Red Hat Cluster Suite.

Besides the included Zimlets, theres a design framework for building interactive client- or server-side actions. I built a Zimlet, for instance, that recognized customer numbers in an e-mail and reached out for details in a database.

ZCS 3.0 doesnt just mimic existing e-mail and calendar systems, it injects ways to improve them. In addition to being compatible with existing e-mail infrastructures, Zimbra excels in search and Web-services integration.

Overall, both Scalix and Zimbra are technically strong and production-proven. But step back and youll see different personalities. The innovation award goes to ZCS 3.0 for integration with other systems through Zimlets. The company also inspires others to rethink how e-mail search can be improved.

Scalix 10 impressed me with stellar Outlook and Evolution connectors along with how far its taken AJAX Web development. The company also seems to understand the infrastructure needs of enterprises, including coexisting with existing mail systems. For these reasons I give the slight advantage Scalix.

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