Linux

Groupware for the SMB

I have researched groupware/collaboration software for years in search of the ideal solution for the SMB (see my previous post regarding a Zimbra turnkey solution). I can’t say there is any cookie-cutter solution for all small and medium businesses. The considerations usually come down to the following in my experience, both as an IT Director and consultant:

  • Cost — This is probably what your CEO is going to ask first when you come to him with a proposal for a new groupware solution. While it may not seem as important to us, it never hurts to show how we can do a lot on a minimum budget just because we are awesome IT guys who deserve a raise. (We all know that no solution is “free” no matter the cost of the software.)
  • Offline Client — Will your solution support an offline client such as Microsoft Outlook? Remember, we are talking groupware here, not just e-mail, so our users need to be able to easily access calendars, tasks, and shared items without us having to hold their hands through the process.
  • Online Client — How good is the web interface? Maybe not all users need to use Outlook or Evolution. Your in-house users should always have access to your servers anyway, and with the wide availability of 3G and wireless hotspots you have to ask yourself: do we absolutely have to have offline clients for all of our mobile users, especially if doing so raises costs significantly?
  • ActiveSync/Syncml — I’m not going to get into the debate of which is the better method of synchronizing data for mobile devices such as cell phones. Syncml is an open standard and supported by most devices, but many of the popular client apps (such as Touchdown for Android, which I use) still do not support it, meaning we are stuck with the proprietary Microsoft AS instead. I personally hope the developers of the top mobile apps will begin supporting Syncml fully, but so far that hasn’t happened on a large scale. The built-in Syncml support on devices that I have tested usually lacks support for one thing: tasks. And as someone who currently has 162 items on his task list this is unacceptable to me. Most of the solutions I cover here support Syncml either officially or unofficially in their FOSS versions.
  • Retention/Archiving — Federal, state, and industry guidelines are making this one of the primary reasons many small business are starting to implement their own internal e-mail/groupware solutions. Can you enforce retention of all outgoing and incoming electronic communications in order to comply with applicable regulations? How easy is it to archive this data to external media such as DVD-ROM? Can you search/sort messages if required to produce documentation by a court order?
  • Scalability — as your business grows, can your groupware solution grow with you without breaking the bank?

With these requirements in mind, I will give my own observations based on my experience with some of the leading solutions out there.

Microsoft Exchange

It is expensive. What more can I say really? It works. It has a decent web interface (if you are willing to use Internet Explorer; I prefer Firefox and although it works some features are unsupported). Microsoft ActiveSync is supported by most devices and mobile apps. How expensive is it really? You need some version of Windows Server plus the CALs, plus the hardware, plus Exchange, plus the Exchange user licenses… and if you plan on upgrading the OS you will have to upgrade everything. Let’s just say it is by far the most expensive solution I have looked into, even considering the perpetual licensing option (face it, we are going to upgrade the operating system at some point because Microsoft will force us to).

Zimbra

I love Zimbra. It has possibly the most advanced web interface of any application I have ever tested. Unfortunately, its licensing isn’t designed for a small business or home user. If you need ActiveSync or Outlook support you are forced to purchase a minimum of 25 user licenses. Fortunately, they do offer their own offline desktop solution. And if you need mobile support on the (free) Community Edition there are a few workarounds, but this can make upgrades difficult and time-consuming. Bottom line is if you have 25 or more users then Zimbra is an advanced solution offering everything you need, but if you want to use the open-source version you will have to be willing to forget about offline mobile support or implement an unsupported solution. As with Exchange, its built-in archiving/retention capabilities are limited, but as an industry-leading product it is well-supported by third-party archiving applications as well as offering its own paid-for solution.

Kerio

There is no open-source or “free” version of Kerio. But it is very cheap, especially when compared to Exchange or Zimbra. I never gave Kerio serious consideration until I was forced to find a cheap Exchange alternative for a business that required Outlook and Android support for only a dozen users. Kerio offers all of that. In fact, it is probably the closest thing to a true Exchange replacement that I have ever tried. Unfortunately the web interface leaves much to be desired, but if your primary need is ActiveSync and the ability to perform all the functions of Microsoft Exchange on a budget this is a good all-around choice. It even offers built-in archiving, though this is not as advanced as many third-party solutions (by default users with access to the archives can delete emails for example). One great thing about Kerio is if you are afraid of Linux, you have the option of running the server on MacOS or Windows.

Open-Xchange

Another leading open-source groupware solution. Although popular I have to say I have been routinely unimpressed. As with Zimbra, the open-source version does not support ActiveSync of any kind. The one thing they do get right is the ability to purchase “OXtenders” for ActiveSync support for only a handful of clients while still using the open-source server. But the pricing is where the pros end. The web interface isn’t as smooth as Zimbra’s. The archiving capabilities are again very limited. Basically I walked away feeling like it was Zimbra stuck in the 20th century.

Scalix

The free Community Edition used to offer a handful of ActiveSync, or Premium, users, but it doesn’t anymore. Still, the cost of the Small Business Edition is relatively low for 10 Premium/ActiveSync licenses ($300 on their website as of today). This puts Scalix on the same playing field (actually a little cheaper probably) as Kerio. The web interface is also an improvement over Kerio (though almost anything is). It is arguably not as easy to maintain as Kerio though. My experience with Scalix has been positive all-around, though the Community Edition lacks enough features to make it worthwhile to purchase at least the Small Business Edition.

Other Solutions

There are many, many other options I have had only limited or no exposure to. Some that I am testing now include Zarafa, eGroupware (which I have played with before many times and been frustrated with for a variety of reasons), and Citadel. So far, I haven’t had enough exposure with these to provide a detailed analysis. Zarafa and Citadel especially feel immature to me. eGroupware has a loyal following. Zarafa is obviously trying to set itself up as an Exchange replacement (like Kerio). Citadel has a very nice web interface and I have high hopes for it in the future.

Conclusion

As stated earlier, there is no cookie-cutter solution. If you don’t need an offline client, I highly recommend Zimbra. If you need a mature Exchange replacement, Kerio or Scalix should suit your needs. If you really are not willing to step into the Linux world, consider Kerio or even Exchange.

Leave a Reply