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Feature: Collaboration

Zimbra Collaboration Server Open Source Edition is a promising low-end package

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols on November 06, 2008 (9:00:00 AM)

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If you're looking to run a serious open source collaboration server, Yahoo's Zimbra Collaboration Suite (ZCS) should be on your short list. This Web 2.0 email and groupware server offers AJAX Web-based administrator and user interfaces, a variety of useful groupware features, and email import functionality.

ZCS comes in five versions. The Open Source Edition, which is the one I tried, doesn't have all the features of the others, but it's purely open source.

Zimbra claims all the editions run on Mac OS X and a variety of Linux platforms, including Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian, Mandriva, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES), rPath (a software appliance ISO image), and VMware (a certified virtual appliance). I installed ZCS 5.0.20 on both openSUSE 11 and SLES 10 SP2.

Installation was a breeze, and that's something I rarely say about serious server applications. Zimbra uses a single staged installation to install all its multiple parts. Like many Unix and Linux applications, Zimbra actually incorporates multiple applications. It uses Apache Tomcat for the Web application server, Postfix for the mail transfer agent (MTA), Clam AntiVirus for virus scanning, SpamAssassin and DSPAM for spam filtering, OpenLDAP for user authentication, and MySQL for user preferences and the message data store. You could install all those by hand, but who would want to?

Your server must have several other common Linux utilities installed as well. The only ones you might not already have set up are cURL, a shell tool for transferring files using URL syntax; the fetchmail remote mail transfer and forwarding utility; and the Libidn library to handle international email addresses.

As for the server hardware, Zimbra recommends a 2GHz or faster 64-bit processor with at least 2GB of RAM. The bare bones for storage is just over 15GB of hard disk space, but that understates real-world requirements. Zimbra doesn't say how much room you should set aside for users' email storage, but I recommend at least 500MB per user. That might seem excessive, but with users now in the habit of attaching large files and letting their mail sit on the server, 500MB is reasonable.

This leads to my first serious concern about Zimbra: the default installation is for one system to handle the entire load. That means a lot of applications are depending on a single system to always perform quickly. I'd prefer to split at least the database and the storage functionality from the application and email server. Zimbra seems to be aware of the concern, because it recommends that you not use RAID 5 if you have more than 100 accounts. Why? Because if you have more than that, your users are likely to see significant slowdowns due to excessive disk activity. It's just too much load for a single system using RAID 5 storage. Clustering, of course, would help with this kind of load issue, but that, along with high-availability support, is only available with the commercial editions.

On my test systems -- a pair of Hewlett-Packard Pavilion a6040n Desktop PCs with 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6320 processors, 2GB of RAM, and 320GB SATA drives -- Zimbra ran without any hiccups. However, I was running it with a light load of no more than 20 users at any given time.

The lively and helpful Zimbra Forums are another plus for small businesses and groups. Relying on mailing lists and forums for support is all too often a hit-or-miss proposition, but with Zimbra, it's a hit. The forums are active, and questions are answered promptly by Zimbra staffers and experienced users who know Zimbra well.

Once I had Zimbra up and running, I found managing the system to be a snap. The Web-based administrator interface makes it easy to set up users and system-wide defaults. For example, you can set up Zimbra so that it automatically dumps incoming email with .exe attachments into the binary garbage bin.

Zimbra also does a good job of working with Outlook 2003 and earlier with its Zimbra Connector for Outlook. This does not, however, work with Outlook 2007. A beta Connector addresses this concern, but it doesn't work that well. In any case, the Connector for Outlook and the Connector for Apple iSync are only available with the proprietary versions of the program.

Of course, what Zimbra really wants you to do is use its Web-based Zimbra Desktop client. This AJAX-based email and calendar application is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It's attractive and easy to use, but I still prefer standalone email clients such as Evolution. You can hook up with Evolution using the free Zimbra Collaboration Suite Evolution Connector, but since both Zimbra and Evolution natively support POP, SMTP, and IMAP for email, and Webcal for calendaring, I'm not sure what the point is for this connector.

The Open Source Edition also lacks a built-in backup and restore facility. That's a major negative for anyone who wants to use Zimbra for serious work. The other editions do include this functionality.

Zimbra's Open Source Edition is released under the Yahoo! Public License. This is a variant on the Mozilla Public License and is not recognized by the Open Source Initiative as an open source license. This difference won't mean much to most users, but it's worth noting for those who prefer their open source licenses to be officially open source.

All in all, the Open Source Edition is a good way to try out Zimbra. Without backup or clustering support, I can't recommend this edition for business use, but the commercial versions look like they would work well. It is annoying, however, that despite all its virtues, the Open Source Edition is almost crippleware.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was the operating system of choice for PCs and 2BSD Unix was what the cool kids used on their computers.

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on Zimbra Collaboration Server Open Source Edition is a promising low-end package

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Zimbra Collaboration Server Open Source Edition is a promising low-end package

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 06, 2008 01:15 PM
Zimbra Open Source edition does allow you to have multi-server installations and separate the core functions to multiple servers allowing very large installations. Zimbra only supports clustering with Red Hat Cluster Server which is supported by the Network edition and Open Source edition. As for backup, there are some very good community written backup/restore scripts that would satisfy a large number of production backup requirement. I have been using Zimbra for three years (since the beginning) and love it!


Zimbra Collaboration Server Open Source Edition is a promising low-end package

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 06, 2008 01:24 PM
Your review mirrors my experiences with Zimbra CE 1 version back from current.
My small consulting company needed a calendaring server where we could see each others' availability - like MS-Exchange. I didn't need or want all the extra bells and whistles that come with Zimbra, but many of them have grown on me and my users.

Key requirements were:
a) not hosted externally - we don't trust others to run our systems. We certainly don't trust google with our proprietary emails.
b) free or really, really cheap
c) shared "enterprise" calendars
d) full alias support and shared folders of some kind
e) all communication must support SSL
f) LDAP for user information, authentication
g) Run under a virtual machine environment, Xen, VMware, VirtualBox
h) Our data has to always be our data and not locked into a specific vendor solution

Email just works. SSL/IMAP and SMTPS.

Calendaring works fantastic with the web interface or the HUGE memory hog Zimbra Client. Enterprise calendaring is great. It doesn't work at all with Outlook in the free version. Forget it. The calendar claims ICS, iCal, support which seems to be true. Under Thunderbird/Lightning connecting to multiple calendars works, but enterprise calendaring doesn't work. There's no good way to see availability for 10 other people. I've decided to use the web interface for all meeting requests to avoid any issues. Viewing the calendar with Lightning works - the alarms are broken - there's no way to dismiss them - at least snooze and dismiss from thunderbird (linux and XP) don't work for me.

Surprises. There are a few extras included with the Zimbra CE version.

Instant Messaging - We've been using the built-in IM support since the beginning,l but it supports XMPP, so any jabber compatible client works ...over SSL too. Verified with Pidgin.

Document Storage - Er ... I tested this for about a month, then disabled it for everyone. Alfresco is a more complete answer.

Wiki/Notebooks - Er ... I tested this for about 2 months, then disabled it for everyone. MediaWiki is a better answer and trivial to setup.

Contact Management - Initially, we each loaded our contacts from thunderbird, outlook, whatever. My thunderbird contacts didn't load clean. Some of the fields were ignored and others were put into the wrong Zimbra field. I ended up exporting them to a CSV and getting the fields to import in the way that Zimbra likes. I needed to clean them up, remove dups and merge data anyway.

Search - Search across everything stored in Zimbra is impressive. I've stopped managing old emails and just shove them into a single IMAP folder for later use by year. Fantastic.

Backup and Recovery - That is always a concern. Since our company is small and will probably never have more than 50 users, I elected to simply shut down the server nightly and backup the entire virtual machine image. A 20GB VM disk becomes 2.5GB of tgz after the backup. It takes about 15 minutes for that to occur. At 4am, 15 min of downtime isn't a big deal. The best thing is that complete and total recovery is trivial. We keep 8 days of these complete backups so if something goes wrong, we have multiple chances to get back almost everything. I've migrated the entire VM to a different Xen server on the network without any issues at all. Just start up on the other server and your Zimbra install is moved.

Samba/Posix Integration - We all want SSO or at least single logon management. Zimbra has guides on adding Posix account support that I was able to follow. Samba and UNIX logins have been working from 4 other virtual machines for months. This week, I hooked up MediaWiki logins with very little effort. Alfresco is proving to be more difficult to couple to the Zimbra LDAP store, but others have confirmed it works. SugarCRM will be my next integration effort.

Bonus side effect - Outlook support for Calendaring is non-existent. That means employees who want to use Outlook really can't. All of you know, Outlook is the "killer app" for most users and while they complain at first, soon the web2.0 interface wins them over. External accounts can be connected and polled.

The Bad - even for a trial installation, at least 1GB of RAM is required and a DNS MX record **must** exist to match your server host/domain name. `hostname` and `domainname` have to return what Zimbra likes or you're screwed. This is just stupid. There's no need for a machine to have to match the virtual name for an email server, but Zimbra makes this a requirement for some reason. Nobody places a server directly on the internet anymore. I spent more time messing with my /etc/hosts table to make Zimbra happy too. Basically, 2 lines with 1 name are all you **can** have in it to get Zimbra installed. After the install, you can add whatever hosts you need.

There are many, many other good things about Zimbra like multi-domain support, but the free version isn't ready for complex deployment without a trained expert involved. OTOH, can you say that MS-Exchange doesn't require experts to perform a complex deployment either?


Zimbra Collaboration Server Open Source Edition is a promising low-end package

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 06, 2008 07:14 PM
I put both my zimbra servers directly on the Internet. And the DNS requirements you complain about are only what are set out by the RFC's regarding SMTP.


Re: Zimbra Collaboration Server Open Source Edition is a promising low-end package

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 07, 2008 11:56 PM
I've run postfix mail servers for over 10 years from behind NAT firewalls. The hostname and domainname have nothing to do with the mail domains being hosted. Then there's Zimbra - the pseudo-free package refuses to install if your /etc/hosts file isn't trivial - like 2 lines trivial with the first non-loopback entry in a very specific order. Perhaps they've fixed this in the latest release?

20 years ago, before the internet was cracker city, you could get away with having servers directly on the internet. Today, I'd **never** place a server directly on the internet without a firewall and load balancer validating inbound connections and performing SSL acceleration.

Don't get me wrong, we're running Zimbra because it is the best option for our requirements. Could it be improved? Definitely. Mandating requirements which aren't really required, well, that's something to be improved, IMHO.


Re: Zimbra Collaboration Server Open Source Edition is a promising low-end package

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 08, 2008 12:04 AM
Sorry, I just re-read your response. Perhaps I wasn't clear. I have ZERO issue with the DNS requirements. That's the way email works. My issue is that the servername and domainname have to match exactly what the MX record says. That simply isn't necessary for postfix to work.
The has these settings to control the domain and server name.
mydomain =
myhostname =
They have nothing to do with the actual hostname.


Zimbra barely qualifies as open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 06, 2008 07:18 PM
The "open source" offerings of Zimbra and Scalix are badgeware. I really don't have a lot of respect for companies that offer both free and proprietary versions. When they do that, they are stating quite clearly: "We believe in proprietary software. We're going to charge money for the things we can get away with charging you for, and we're going to open source the pieces that we can't get away with charging you for, either because it's a commodity that we can't compete on, or because we helped ourselves to these open source underpinnings and we have to honor their licenses." Go with true end-to-end open source and select a GPL groupware server like Citadel or Kolab.


Re: Zimbra barely qualifies as open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 07, 2008 03:26 AM
What difference does it make if they charge for the software - you wouldn't pay for a decent-quality application?
I have never been able to come to grips with the attitude that 'open-source' has to equate to no-cost or someone's getting screwed.
If I could pay for a true Adobe Illustrator equivalent (or even bloaty ol' Illustrator itself) that would run on Linux or on Open Systems, i'd be right up there at the front of the line to do so. I've set up ZCS for several small companies, and I can tell you without reservation it's a lot faster and easier to configure than trying to do it all yourself. Surely that's worth something?


Re: Zimbra barely qualifies as open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 07, 2008 11:03 PM
I thought about using Zimbra in my company recently.
I later decided against it. I wanted opensource not because I wanted it free($) but for other reasons.

My question is this. What if Microsoft bought Yahoo, what would happen to my investment in Zimbra.
MS has thier proprietory exchange, what incentive would they have for keeping Zimbra. They could make it fully proprietory but would more likely kill the project as they have done with similar "opensource" projects they have bought.

WIll Zimbra license allow someone to continue the opensource part of it if this happens.

This bothers me more about some opensource projects more than anything else.

What do you think? AM I just been paranoid?


Zimbra Collaboration Server Open Source Edition is a promising low-end package

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 06, 2008 08:34 PM
I've never understood why people recommend "do not use RAID 5". A RAID 0 with 2 7200rpm disks is way slower than a RAID 5 on 9 15000rpm disks. It is not the RAID level, it is the IO performance that counts.


Re: Zimbra Collaboration Server Open Source Edition is a promising low-end package

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 07, 2008 03:31 AM
The reason, I suspect, is because many people don't understand how i/o subsystems really work. I know some of the companies I've helped out are more interested in total storage capacity, and have no clue regarding the difference the number of spindles/channels/paths makes. I even had one customer ask me why their server needed so many drives, when he could go to Fry's and pick up a single terabyte drive for roughly what one disk in the array was costing.


Zimbra Collaboration Server Open Source Edition is a promising low-end package

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 06, 2008 11:01 PM
We have gone through 2 network trials of zimbra and we have yet to get evolution to be able to write to the calander. Imap/smtp works great. Cal not so nice. If anyone knows the trick please let me know. I've gone back and forth with support from zimbra. They pretty much told me that they only have one developer working on updating the evolution plugin and they do not intend to support it in the future.


The binary version of ZCS open source edition is not open-source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 07, 2008 07:28 AM
The "open source" Zimbra Collaboration Server 99% of people run is licensed under restrictive Zimbra End-user License Agreement (ZEULA). The only way to run open source -licensed (YPL 1.1) version of Zimbra is to compile it from source. Unfortunately the best way I can describe that is as infernal:

- build files are often badly broken, depending on the state of their Perforce (p4) repository
- build system makes faulty assumptions about the build environment
- external dependencies are not documented properly
- build process is very, very poorly documented

For those reasons you need to do endless of hours debugging the build process, making hacks, searching for dependencies, fixing build files etc. just to get one step forward. In the end you might end up with a functional version of Zimbra. In short, Zimbra is not meant to be compiled by anyone else but Zimbra employees, who have access to internal documentation. The fact that the binary version is released under the restrictive ZEULA underlines the fact that they don't want Zimbra to be modified by external developers.

So yes, Zimbra is open source. But running the open source version is beyond 99% of the people.


Zimbra Collaboration Server Open Source Edition is a promising low-end package

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 10, 2008 03:10 AM
Are you sure it was Zimbra 5.0.20, typo ?

The latest version are Zimbra 5.0.10 and I got Perl error on openSUSE 11.0. How could you resolving this problem ?


Zimbra is great if you don't need to customize it

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 11, 2008 11:42 AM
First thing:
My experience with the Forums is not that good. I have several unanswared Topics open.

Zimbra is really great if you just want to use what it already provides, but if you need customization it can be a pain in the ass. And I'm talking about simple changing something in the skin.


Like they said, go with Citadel or Kolab if you want a free and clean system

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 12, 2008 04:56 PM
Like they said, go with Citadel or Kolab if you want a system free and clean of crippled things


Re: Like they said, go with Citadel or Kolab if you want a free and clean system

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on November 17, 2008 04:09 PM
This forum has been invaluable to me. After trying out Zimbra (before seeing this forum) I ran into every one of the problems described with the Open Source Edition: difficult to backup, MX record strict reliance, difficult RAID-5 implementation, and other crippled functions.

The only thing I liked was the AJAX interface.

I also agree with the business prospects of Zimbra since being acquired by Yahoo. I don't trust Google and I don't trust Yahoo to manage my sensitive data. I certainly don't trust Microsoft.

Pseudo-open source is a ploy -- a bait-and-switch scheme of the worst kind.

I am back to Kolab, since our organization has standardized on KDE (using Kubuntu).

I liked eGroupware, except for their clients, which are klunky and barely usable. Perhaps eGroupware is usable with client connectors?

Zimbra, despite is attractiveness initially, is out of the picture for me. It's been a wasted month playing with it.


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