Free Collaboration Appliance For The Linux Noob

Collaboration suites are becoming more and more common in even the smallest of businesses. Email, calendars, tasks, etc. are integrated even on cheap cell phones now so it is not unheard of for an IT consultant to be asked to deploy a collaboration server for shops with only a handful of computer users. Yet once they see the price tag of Exchange + Windows Server + Hardware + Outlook, most customers’ eyes tend to bulge out of their sockets.

Is there a free (as in beer), cheap, or open source alternative to Exchange that is easy to install and maintain for a consultant who can’t be on-site all the time? The short answer is “no.” And before all you Zimbra/Scalix/Open-Xchange users try to argue with me, please let me explain.

When I say Exchange alternative, I mean a true replacement. There is no such thing. There are products out there that actually provide more features for free, but I can’t call them Exchange replacements because none of them provide completely free-of-charge native Outlook integration (Zarafa and Scalix Community Edition do provide a handful of free Outlook connectors) and ActiveSync. For many small shops that have standardized on Microsoft Office, this is something they are looking for. Windows Server SBS may be a better option for these customers unless they are willing to alter their thinking a little bit.

Now, if you are looking at Exchange alternatives with that in mind, you will quickly realize that all of the good free ones run under Linux. Maybe you entered the IT world hanging onto Bill Gates’ coattail and haven’t quite woken up to the fact that there are other operating systems out there besides Windoze. Or maybe you just want to try one of these free alternatives quickly without going through the process of apt-get to obtain all the prerequisites. Why isn’t there a turnkey appliance that will let you quickly test one of these collaboration suites? There is–the Zimbra Appliance running on Turnkey Linux.

I’m kind of partial to Zimbra thanks to its superb interface. I haven’t had to teach a user how to compose email under Zimbra–ever. Even the most technologically-disadvantaged CEO can sit down and start using it right away with little or no instruction. It also has come a long way in the last couple of years and the developers have listened to many of the complaints of users from previous versions and incorporated the requested features into each new major version. Its main drawback is licensing. If you want Outlook and/or offline Mobile features, you will have to buy a minimum of 25 licenses and the price comes close to that of Exchange (without figuring in operating system that is). It has possibly the best web interface of any software I have ever tested, though, and if you can get your users used to using the online client and/or the free desktop client (which is only in 2.0 beta at this time and still has a few bugs), then it is completely free and more than adequate for most small networks.

Open-Xchange and Scalix lack a turnkey solution at this time, as far as I know. But if you are looking for Exchange replacements, these may be cheaper choices as the native Outlook and Mobile connectors are easier to obtain without paying a lot of money for features most small shops do not need. But don’t discount Zimbra off-hand. The web interface is second-to-none (and I actually like the newest Exchange interface, despite its obvious preference for Internet Explorer), so unless you really need an offline client (like if your users frequent those Verizon dead-zones that supposedly don’t exist) Zimbra is a really good option.

Oh, and one more thing. That appliance is using an old version of Zimbra. If you try it out and decide to use it, you will probably want to upgrade. I am working on a step-by-step how-to guide for the Linux noob and I will post it shortly.

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