SuSE OpenExchange: More Than a Mere Mail Server

Groupware has become ubiquitous in the business world, but oddly enough, until recently there haven’t been many viable choices for groupware, especially for mid-sized offices reluctant to run expensive servers. Microsoft Exchange, and Novell Groupwise are probably the most popular choices at the enterprise level, but they are expensive and require skilled administration. They are also plagued with horrid marketing buzzwords like “collaborative portal management” and “dynamic collaboration solution,” but that is a rant for another day.

Small-office and home office (SOHO) users have had few solid choices as well. Time & Chaos’s inexpensive price tag and ease of use have earned it a faithful following on small peer networks comprised of Windows PCs. More prevalent have been “outsourcing” services, or Web-based subscription services, where users’ data are stored on the vendor’s servers and accessed via the Internet.

Of course, that still leaves a gaping hole in the groupware market for mid-sized offices. A relatively new entrant in the groupware field for mid-sized companies is SuSe OpenExchange. Built on quality open-source components, OpenExchange has a lot to offer to companies looking for a relatively inexpensive messaging server solution. OpenExchange’s open-source components include:

  • Postfix
  • Apache 1.3
  • Cyrus IMAP
  • OpenLDAP
  • Samba
  • PostgreSQL
  • SpamAssassin
  • Tomcat

SuSE OpenExchange also supports the following standard security protocols:

  • Transport Layer Security (TLS)
  • Simple Authentication and Security Layer (SASL)
  • SMTP Authentication (SMTP-AUTH)
  • Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)

A Standalone, Dedicated Messaging Server
OpenExchange includes SuSE’s Enterprise Linux 8 operating system and is meant to be installed and run as a standalone, dedicated system. Using Samba and OpenLDAP, the OpenExchange box can be used as a primary domain controller for mixed Linux/Windows networks. Samba enables file sharing across the network, while OpenLDAP is used for the user authentication database.

A note of warning, though — SuSE’s Enterprise Linux comes with its own user administration tools, as do all versions of Linux. Do not try to use them to configure OpenExchange, however; instead, use only OpenExchange’s configuration tools. OpenExchange, like its predecessor SuSE Linux eMail Server, comes with two ready-made admin accounts, cyrus and mailadmin, that should be used instead of the OS admin tools.

The mail server component is fully-featured, with built-in security (SMTP authentication and Transport Layer Security) and support for multiple domains, virtual domains, POP, IMAP, Webmail, and fetchmail. Dial-on-demand can be set up with minimal hassle, and SpamAssassin handles spam filtering. SpamAssassin adds tags to messages it thinks are spam and then allows the user to decide how to handle the tagged mails. For example, users can create their own filters to automatically delete all mail tagged by SpamAssasin, or they can have the tagged messages sent to a folder for manual review.

Some SpamAssassin fans report greater than 98% accuracy. It uses advanced text and header analysis to detect spam, rather than simply creating a database of known spammers, which is futile and outdated from the moment of creation. Unfortunately, retaliation is not one of SpamAssassin’s options, but aside from this minor shortcoming, it’s a first-rate program.

The primary feature that stands out in OpenExchange is its browser interface, both for administrators and users. The browser interface for mail eliminates the need for a standalone mail client, although OpenExchange does support all the major mail clients for users who must have them. Still, using a separate, stand-alone mail client really doesn’t make sense as the browser interface offers full functionality.

OpenExchange supports all the major Web browsers, including Netscape, Konqueror, Opera, and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Mozilla and Opera run on multiple operating systems for easy standardization. Unless your users are exceptionally thick, it won’t take them long to master the clean, well-organized browser screens. Users can easily access the system from anywhere, on any platform, and have access to certificate, SSL, and authenticated SMTP security options.

More Than Merely A Mail Server
No one needs a server this sophisticated for merely distributing emails across the network. The heart of OpenExchange is the PostgreSQL database. Documents are stored as database objects, rather than simply copied over via Samba. This doesn’t matter to users, of course, who see standard directory trees and have a nice graphical user interface (GUI) to click and drag through. Items are hyperlinked for easy organization and retrieval and for conserving disk space — there’s no need to create endless multiple copies of files for distribution.

What’s really useful in OpenExchange is that users control the level of organization — there’s no need to pester or wait on the overworked admin to perform file management chores. Stored files can be linked to — and links organized — by several users or groups of users any way they need, without disturbing the organization of the files themselves.

These links form a “Knowledge Database.” Again, users see a standard directory structure, even though they are really hyperlinks, not the actual files and directories. Because everything is hyperlinked, users can bookmark items to their heart’s content. Users will also appreciate the speed of PostgreSQL’s built-in full-text search engine.

Also included in OpenExchange are discussion forums and easy mechanisms for creating user groups, resource groups, and appropriate access permissions. The “Pin Board” is a useful online bulletin board, and my favorite feature, “Mail To All,” allows the admin to dispense words of wit and wisdom to all users with a single click.

OpenExchange also offers a nice assortment of system monitoring tools for active users, mail queue, load monitoring, and load balancing.

Migrating from Exchange 5.5 or eMail Server 3.1
SuSE is taking direct aim at Microsoft Exchange with this product. As such, this is not a product for inexperienced sysadmins any more than Exchange or Notes are. OpenExchange is easier to operate than Exchange and is far more sane. Buying this product will not eliminate the need for a skilled administrator! But it will make the admin’s life a whole lot easier, as like any Linux server, it “just works” without needing excessive babysitting.

With Exchange 5.5 nearing the end of its support cycle for many users, migrating from Exchange 5.5 to OpenExchange is a worthy option to investigate.Contact SuSE for information on switching over from Exchange; they will be more than happy to assist you with the migration. Additionally, instructions for upgrading from SuSE eMail Server 3.1 are in the excellent OpenExchange administrator’s manual.

SuSE has done an outstanding job with OpenExchange. It costs $1,249, which includes the operating system and ten groupware clients. External email clients do not pay for licenses, nor are there client access licenses for the operating system. Additional groupware client licenses range from $32 to $50, depending on quantity. There are no sneaky proprietary gotchas to bollix standard security or networking protocols. Compared to the other enterprise groupware/email servers on the market, OpenExchange is the bargain of the year for mid-size companies looking for a powerful mail server solution.

Adapted from CrossNodes, part of the Network.

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