Open Minded? Zimbra Offers Alternative to Exchange

By Dan Muse | Posted October 03, 2005

Large and mid-size businesses now view the Linux operating system and open-source software as viable alternatives to Windows and licensed applications. Whether or not small businesses are fully on board is arguable.

However, what's clear is that open source is opening up new non-Windows options for small businesses — especially now that applications are beginning to emerge (for example, see our recent coverage of SugarCRM). The latest alternative comes from a startup company that today announced a collaboration suite designed to compete with Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino.

The Zimbra Collaboration Suite is a client-server application that offers e-mail, contacts and group calendaring. When you look at messaging products, "technology has moved very little," said Scott Dietzen, president and chief technology officer at Zimbra. "Look at GMail [Google's free Web-based e-mail service] ... how do you reconcile that with what's available for power users? We want to change the game with innovation."


Much of the innovation in the Zimbra client is based on AJAX (short for Asynchronous Javascript). In short, AJAX lets Web-based applications act, and share information, like desktop applications. Using Web services protocols, the Zimbra services communicates via XML/SOAP with other Web-services-enabled applications, which integrates your e-mail application with the browser. For instance, Zimbra showed examples in which moving your cursor on a street address in an e-mail message sent a message out to Google Maps and returns a map (within the e-mail message) pinpointing that address. Similarly hovering over a URL displayed a small image of that Web site.

Even more practical uses emerge when business applications make data available through Web services protocols. For example, mousing over and right clicking on a purchase order number could bring up details on that entry from your accounting or CRM application. It's also possible to launch your VoIP service, such as Skype, from a phone number listed in an e-mail message.

In addition to innovation, the two other key elements of the Zimbra Collaboration Suite, Dietzen said, are that it's open source and compatible with the browsers and e-mail clients businesses use. That is, it runs on Windows, Linux and Apple desktops in Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers.

The Zimbra Server supports existing clients via standard protocols like POP, IMAP, SOAP/XML, AJAX and LDAP and applications such Outlook, Thunderbird/Sunbird, Apple Mail/iCal, Evolution and Eudora.

The communications suite also strives to make searching e-mail faster than what's currently available through most e-mail applications. Zimbra's John Robb, the company's vice president of marketing and product management, said that Zimbra indexes all e-mail messages and their attachments as they are received by the server. When you need to track down a piece of information you can search the header, body and more than 200 different attachment types. Because the content has already been indexed, the searches Robb demonstrated were impressively fast.

You can also convert e-mail attachments from their native formats to HTML, Robb said — eliminating the need to launch Adobe Acrobat, for example, to search the contents of a PDF document.

For system administrators, the Zimbra Collaboration Suite is designed to be easy to migrate to from messaging system. It also features what the San Mateo, Calif.-based company describes as "intelligent online backup and single mailbox restore. It also has built-in disaster recovery, archiving, high availability and more, according to the company.

In keeping with the open source model, Zimbra will offer a free version as well as commercial product. The commercial product will cost $30 per mailbox, per year and offer cross mailbox search and discovery and indexing of attachments and support and fixes.

If you don't have Linux admin help on staff or available through the company you use for IT services, Zimbra will also be available as a hosted service through ISP and hosting service providers, Dietzen said. One of the first such services is Speakeasy.net. At launch, Zimbra said it had only a handful of service providers signed on to offer the hosted services, but it expects that number to grow.

Dan Muse is executive editor of internet.com's Small Business Channel, EarthWeb's Networking Channel and ServerWatch.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!


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