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Florian von Kurnatowski, the director of Scalix' open source project, laughs when you ask him how Scalix, a Silicon Valley startup of not too many more than 50 employees, could possibly be taking on the world's largest software manufacturer, with all its seemingly undepletable resources.
"To really create this competition scenario is a bit of a stretch," he admits, citing ancient accounts of David. "That's the bad thing about competing against Microsoft -- you can't, really. Who can honestly say they compete with Microsoft, on the same level with them, on an eye-to-eye level?"
You're about to remind him that David was quite a ways off from being eye-to-eye with his infamous adversary, when he goes on. "But on the other hand, the fact that Microsoft is Microsoft makes the competition pretty easy. I think customers are getting more aware of this lock-in situation, and that's the worst thing about Microsoft."
The lock-in maneuver
While von Kurnatowski says the downtime suffered by Microsoft Exchange may be higher than that of the Scalix server -- "it's not like it's completely unreliable" -- the problem with Exchange, he says, is not so much the technology, but that when you choose to go with it, you've just bought into a host of other decisions.
"I buy Exchange, I have to go Active Directory on the server side. I have no more choice in directories. Then the next thing is, I buy Exchange, I actually have to continue to use Outlook as my client. Exchange and Outlook are so tightly integrated that you can't really use another client.... You basically need to keep your desktops running Windows and Outlook into eternity.
"If you then say, 'Well, I want to migrate away from Microsoft Office because it's too expensive for me,' and let's say you want to use OpenOffice.org, which is obviously becoming a more and more popular alternative. If you have Exchange, you're kind of running into a dead end, because OpenOffice doesn't come with an Outlook equivalent. So you would end up replacing your Word, your Excel, and your PowerPoint with the OpenOffice application, but how would you replace Outlook?
"And then, if you would be still running Exchange, you would probably have to keep your Outlook -- now, that would probably kill your whole OpenOffice project, because a single Microsoft desktop application like Outlook costs more than half of the whole office suite," he says. "Microsoft has been very clever in their licensing scheme. If you buy the whole office suite, even though it's expensive -- I mean, this is like a couple hundred dollars per suite -- it's discounted heavily against buying the single applications."
Migration made easy
Now von Kurnatowski lets you in on a secret: "There's rumors that still like 25% of all Exchange operators in the world are still using Exchange 5.5, and it's been discontinued in support like two years ago or something -- I mean, this is a piece of software that was written in 1995 or '96, and it's really out of support completely."
And yet, he says it's still in popular use. Why? "The main reason for that is that most of these Exchange 5.5 systems are running on NT 4 operating systems," which makes it pre-Active Directory -- "if you upgrade from Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2000, which was the next version, you had to go the Active Directory step.
"So not only do you have to upgrade your email system, which is painful because email is a large and important application, but you also have to upgrade your directory. And, especially for smaller companies, this is where they say, 'Stop! I can't do that!'
"Basically, the whole project is kind of locked and they never touch their running system since the administrator just doesn't feel capable of moving his email and his directory and everything at the same time -- he's really afraid. Because his boss breathes down his neck and goes like, 'OK, if you bring our email down, that's the end of the story.' Because email is becoming a lot more mission-critical for many companies than the telephone."
This, he says, is the typical customer who is switching to Scalix. With Scalix, you don't need Active Directory -- although some of their largest customers have it.
"If you look at our user base, probably about 50% of them are coming over from Exchange because they want to replace the Microsoft stack with us."
And the other half? Some are migrating from Notes or Groupwise, but a good part of the others -- von Kurnatowski estimates it as about 25-30% of the complete Scalix user base -- are coming over from something simpler, and they want to go beyond an "only email" system, with all the features like group calendaring that enterprise email platforms deliver.
"And actually," von Kurnatowski says, "group calendaring today is needed and wanted by even the smallest companies. Like even if you have a company of 10 people, you probably want a centralized calendar."
Bringing in the desktop
But what you really want to hear is how Scalix might promote a smooth migration path to Linux. Von Kurnatowski says, "If you replace Exchange 5.5 with Scalix, what happens is, number one for your users, nothing changes immediately. So they can keep their Outlook -- that's part of our investment protection.
"Then in the next step, on your Windows desktop, replace Microsoft Office (Word, PowerPoint, and Excel), with OpenOffice, thereby reducing your licensing costs for office software to nil.
"Now at the same time, replace Outlook with Scalix Web Access." He says the Web-based email client -- which runs in Firefox, so is available equally for Linux or Windows -- has a look and feel that's very close to Outlook, thereby eliminating any training costs.
"You're still running Windows, but now you've just replaced Microsoft Office with OpenOffice, plus you've got rid of Outlook -- and you're on a Web client.
"So then the next step, you just kind of throw out the operating system and put Linux in, and users are not going to see much difference because they keep their applications."
He pauses dramatically and then adds, "That's the kind of story that Scalix is really after. That's the Scalix story. I think it's extremely powerful."