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Feature: Enterprise Applications

Open-Xchange Server 5: Groupware done the OSS way

By Aditya Nag on June 14, 2006 (8:00:00 AM)

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Setting up enterprise groupware is usually associated with huge costs, both in money and staffing, and immense complexity, requiring professionals to keep everything running smoothly. The benefits are worth the costs, though, even for smaller organizations. If done correctly, your staff will be up-to-date and able to quickly and easily share essential information. With Open-Xchange Server, you can get those benefits from an open source application.

IBM's Domino, and Microsoft Exchange are the two big names in this field, with Novell Groupwise right behind them. These 800-pound gorillas have everything you need, but the flip side is the high costs of installation, and the need for experienced people to keep everything running smoothly.

Here's where Open-Xchange Server comes in. If the name is unfamiliar, it may be because the project has had a chequered past. Originally developed by Netline, and then as SUSE Open Exchange, the project was spun off by Novell after it purchased SUSE, and the core source code was released under the GPL. A commercial version is available for those who want to have an easy installation, service, and support, and automatic updates. If you have the necessary experience, you can download and install the free version as well at www.open-xchange.org. The user community has written several guides to help you with installation, which are available on the wiki.

I tested the commercial version of Open-Xchange 5 through a handy live CD. This is freely downloadable, and since it's based on Knoppix, it runs on pretty much any computer. The live CD lets you try out the various features of Open-Xchange, and helps you decide if you want the full package.

The commercial version of Open-Xchange can only be installed on either SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 or Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4, along with a Binary Disc update. By narrowing down the options, the developers are able to avoid a lot of distribution-specific caveats. The free version can be installed on pretty much any GNU/Linux distro, but you won't get the nice Web-based administration tools or any free technical support. It is possible to pay for support, however.

Features and accessibility

Open-Xchange has all the necessary groupware features and then some, including email, Web mail, group and individual calendering, a searchable knowledge base, and robust document sharing capabilities. The document sharing feature has automatic versioning and file locking, which are useful when you have different people working on the same document. The knowledge base is useful as a central repository of information, such as company policies, or software manuals.

Accessibility remains the single most important aspect of a groupware suite. It must be easy to use, and provide information to every sort of user, whether they be geeks or absolute technophobes. If the interface is complex and confusing, your employees may forgo using it. The Open-Xchange interface is clean and simple, and most people shouldn't have a problem with it.

Open-Xchange supports all major browsers, including Firefox, Opera, Mozilla, and of course Internet Explorer. If your users are accustomed to Microsoft Outlook, you can use the Outlook-OXtender to seamlessly use the Open-Xchange server. I tried out both, and though I preferred the Web-based interface, I didn't have any problems with the Outlook-OXtender. I didn't see any rendering problems or interface flakiness in any of these browsers.

The Open-Xchange calendar has the ability to determine availability windows, send email invitations, and link to relevant documents. None of these features are new, of course, but they are essential, and fairly well implemented. All the standard calendering features are also present.

Document sharing is an interesting feature in Open-Xchange. Since it supports automatic versioning and file locking, you can have multiple people working on the same document, and easily track changes in the document. Microsoft also supports this in the newer versions of Office, but Open-Xchange works just as well with other software, including OpenOffice.org.

The portal can be customized to some extent by individual users to suit their preferences. Also, the administrator can customize the look of the entire product by tinkering with stylesheets, which isn't extraordinarily complex. You can change colours, add your company's logo, and generally make it look the way you want.

The rest of the groupware features are similarly well implemented -- nothing extremely fancy, just simple and easy to use. The Contacts, Webmail, Project Management, and Document Sharing screens all work as expected.

If you are thinking of migrating from Microsoft Exchange, Open-Xchange, Inc., and its partners provide some help. It may not be an easy job, however, so do your research before you take the plunge. On the other hand, if you are setting up your groupware application for the first time, Open-Xchange is especially attractive.

I wasn't able to stress-test Open-Xchange Server with large user loads, but given that it's based on extremely scalable open source software such as Postfix, OpenLDAP, Apache, Cyrus IMAP, Tomcat, and PostgreSQL, it should be able to scale fairly well. Both SLES 9 and RHEL 4 are likewise used in large corporations, so the structure looks fairly sound. Of course, extensive stress-testing before you use any product in a production environment is always a good idea.

Administration

Open-Xchange's Web-based administration tools are easy to use. You have a basic tree menu on the left, with just six headings: User, Groups, Resources, Resource Groups, Mailserver, and Security. They are fairly self-explanatory, and don't have an overwhelming number of options. You can add additional modules to Open-Xchange, as and when you need them. The administration can be handled by someone who is reasonable competent; you don't need a full-time Linux geek to keep it all running.

You can set up groups of users and give them access to distinct functions. You can easily restrict access, move people around in groups, and generally micromanage your users' permissions to view things.

The administration may be simple to the point of being too simple. Some businesses may find that they have specific requirements that are not addressed in the base package. Banks and financial institutions may need higher security, for example. Open-Xchange is expandable, and since it is based on widely used standards, you should be able to find people who can easily modify it. The source code of the base is freely available, but the administration interface is proprietary.

As an administrator, it is important to note that you cannot change the basic software required. If you don't like PostgreSQL or Cyrus, too bad. However, there is no real reason to get under the hood, with two exceptions -- anti-virus and anti-spam.

Open-Xchange offers no anti-virus program support out of the box. It is possible to set up ClamAV with Postfix, but you'll have to get your hands dirty to do this. Spam filtering is included, but again, to set it up to your liking, you'll have to edit the config files. These two omissions struck me as being slightly odd, given the amount of havoc spam and viruses can cause.

Drawbacks and conclusion

The biggest problem with Open-Xchange is the restriction on installing only on SLES 9 or RHEL 4. There are many small to medium enterprises that are running one of the RHEL clones, such as Centos 4, or a Debian-based distro, and forcing them to buy an expensive enterprise version seems a little excessive. This is one of the most common complaints on the Open-Xchange user forums. The GPL version can be installed on any *nix distro, but it doesn't have the slick interface or the usability of the commercial version.

Since even proprietary enterprise applications such as Oracle can run just fine on the RHEL clones, and Open-Xchange is based on open source software, there doesn't seem to be any technical reason why it should be restricted to running on just these two distributions. It seems to be more of a policy matter, rather then a technical reason. I asked Open-Xchange about this, and got a predictable answer, stating that they "want to link the users of our commercial product to a commercial vendor that _guarantees_ the maintenance for the operating system." To be fair, they do have a point. I still feel that they could have released a stand-alone version, but your opinion may differ.

The lack of an integrated anti-virus and anti-spam solution is another drawback. The developers should consider integrating Clam-AV or a similar solution into Open-Xchange. Administrators should be able to manage the spam filters through the Web front end as well.

Open-Xchange is available only in a 32-bit version at the moment, and there is no support for IPv6.

Pricing for Open-Xchange starts at $389 for the Small Business edition with five named users, and goes up to $1,095 for the Advanced Server edition with 25 named users. These prices do not include the cost of RHEL4 or SLES 9; you can buy bundled versions for a few hundred dollars more. If you need support for more users, you can buy additional licenses. The only difference between the Small Business edition and the Advanced Server edition is the limit on the number of users, and support while installing. The SBS edition supports a maximum of 25 users, while the AS edition has no specific limit.

Outlook OXtender and Palm OXtender are included in the price. Open-Xchange also has academic and government price discounts for qualifying institutions.

At the end of the day Open-Xchange comes across as a pretty good product for its price. It will be most attractive to small/medium enterprises that are setting up groupware for the first time. If you are already using a different application, migrating can be difficult.

Open-Xchange works well, has a decent feature set, and is platform-agnostic. It's not perfect, and lacks a few features, but all in all, it gets the job done.

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on Open-Xchange Server 5: Groupware done the OSS way

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openxchange on sarge

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 14, 2006 04:52 PM
There are debian packages.

Add the following line to our sources.list
deb <a href="http://www.gallet.info.free.fr/debian/" title="info.free.fr">http://www.gallet.info.free.fr/debian/</a info.free.fr> sarge contrib main non-free (<a href="http://www.apt-get.org/list/?site=1065" title="apt-get.org">http://www.apt-get.org/list/?site=1065</a apt-get.org>)

Or follow these instructions.
<a href="http://open-xchange.org/oxwiki/OXDebianSargeFromPackage" title="open-xchange.org">http://open-xchange.org/oxwiki/OXDebianSargeFromP<nobr>a<wbr></nobr> ckage</a open-xchange.org>

As for Centos isn't it pretty much the same as RedHat? So I guess you could install the rpms for RH on Centos as well.

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Screenshots?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 14, 2006 07:06 PM
Some screenshots of the "slick interface" would have been nice.

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e-groupware

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 15, 2006 12:14 AM
I would encourage people interested in a F/OSS groupware solution to checkout e-groupware as well. Better price(free as in freedom) more possible features. Easy to setup, configure, administer and use.

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Be very careful or you will be in a hole like me

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 15, 2006 02:20 PM
The first problem I've had with Open Exchange is the very thing that makes Open Exchange attractive: use MS Outlook with OXtender to synchronize (calendar, tasks, among other things) with Open Exchange. As of today, the latest version is 4.0.5 and I got enough problems with this release and the previous one. I installed it for a number of my users and renderred them unable to access the IMAP inbox on the Open Exchange. Everytime they click on the IMAP account in MS Outlook, errors such as Unable to access the server popup. I uninstalled, reinstalled with no successful. It even happened to a clean computer.
If you happened to chose SLES, you will run into plenty of problems becasue as of right now SLES SP3, Tomcat "OUT OF MEMORY" is still not fixed yet. I have only around 30 users and 5-8 of them access the groupware portal at any time, the memory usage was more than 2.5 Gigs without any swapping. I also ran into Postgresql problem of Unable to creat new connection for non-root users.
There are plenty problems with Tomcat and Java with Open Exchange 5 SP1.

It is just such a night mare to deal with all the problems and Open Exchange is sure to keep you busy and pissed off. You then might wonder why I complained and did not ask for help from customer support. As a buyer of the product, you get free access to the maintenance portal for 5 years. What you get from this portal are accesses to updates and documents, and a forum that dedicated for free-will support by users and Open Exchange. Free-will here means that Netline or Open Exchange is not obligated to answer your questions or problems. Because this forum is totally sealed from the world and you can not google for what happen in there. If you are like me and many others, I am greatly disappointed by the forums: questions did not get any answers or you just got sloppy answers. Many people in the forums voiced their frustration of bad customer support from Netline and wished that other potential customers should know about how bad it is.
If you would like to get timely and actual support, you better buy support packages from them. I like many others thought that the maintenance forum is the fountain of answers for our problems and man oh man, how I and others were so wrong. I wish I knew the maintenance portal was this bad. Besides that, documents are not detailed and did not describe enough information to assist users to know why you have to do certain thing. Just like when you set up OXtender, they just said enter that and this information without any hints of why you need to do that. All and all, as the person who directly managed to install and administrate Open Exchange I am not happy with the information provided from Netline.

For the antivrus and spam filter, they are not that difficult to setup. Because Postfix is used as the SMTP server, I also set up Postgrey for spam deterring and so far I would say Postgrey worked beautifully.

My experience is very bad regarding customer support and documents. However, I am not bashing Open Exchange as a product. Open Exchange has good set of features and since it is built from open source softwares, you still can find help for each piece of the software seperately.

Anyway, Open Exchange is not for the faint of hearts and you need to have strong technical backgrounds for Tomcat, Postfix, Cyrus-Imapd, Postgresql , OpenLdap and among other things. The OXtender is not mature yet and riddled with problems. If you have to run Open Exchange, please tried to avoid SLES. I was convinced into getting SLES by the technical directors of one of Open Exchange partners and I am actually a Red Hat, FC guy but the differences are minimal but the problems could be quite serious.

Just my 2 cents.

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why use Outlook? it suxx, geez

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 16, 2006 05:06 AM
why not use the client Web interface, which gives users full access to all of OX's goodies? The first job of any sensible admin is to get rid of malware-friendly garbage like Outlook. And even if it weren't malware-friendly garbage, supporting standalone mail clients is silly when you can choose nice cross-platform Web browser interface.

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Re:why use Outlook? it suxx, geez

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 16, 2006 01:02 PM
Yeah, after all the talks about the web client, your users will simply stick with MS Outlook. People are afraid of changes and especially with something they are so familiar with over the years. The better way is to educate them to use MS Outlook safer like disabling the autoview panel, don't click on unexpected emails from strangers, delete those right away. Besides that, it is also required to have antivirus and anti-spyware protection on each PCs. You just have to admit that we unfortunately live in a world of Windows desktops and not all of your users would like to jump on Linux or Mac OX for their desktops.

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Re:why use Outlook? it suxx, geez

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on August 11, 2006 05:03 AM
Are you stating you will not need an anti-virus and anti-spam solution on your linux mail server? Because, if you are, then you living in dream world.
Simple reality is, companies are sticking to the MS exchange becuase it works, simple to use and in comparison to Openxchange, it is reliable. Believe, I have spent the last 2 months trying to get it to work. Openxchange (commercial version) has poor support forums, ineffective knowledge base and does not deliver on it's claims.

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Re:why use Outlook? it suxx, geez

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on August 10, 2006 01:08 AM
Big reason - offnet access to your mail / stuff. If you are a traveling user, you don't always have access to the internet. Personally, I would MUCH prefer a better non-web client app rather than OutLook. Thunderbird with the "lightning" calendar maybe... (it's still beta.)

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Zimbra

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 15, 2006 06:58 PM
OpenXchange is NOT friendly for OSS users, i.e. if you don't pay, you get a very unfriendly package!

On the other side, I prefer Zimbra very much. Looks impressive, super easy to install and admin. Maybe not so many features, though.

Definitely worth a look

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Re:Zimbra

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 15, 2006 11:18 PM
You might want to try Scalix. They allow you to have
25 Premium users for free. Premiun users can do
group calendaring. With Outlook connector you
can, as a Premium User, connect to the Scalix
Server as if you are connecting to MS Exhange
server. On top of that you can have unlimited
Standard and Web users. They also have a Scalix
community forum that you can look for help.

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Kolab

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 15, 2006 08:05 PM
What of Kolab Server?

Whats the status with that? and how does it compare?

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Why use a mail client like outlook/evolution

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 17, 2006 02:54 AM

A good reason to use outlook is because you've been using it for years, and it already works. All your contacts and calendar items are already in Outlook.



And your job does not revolve around IT. You teach History, and you'd like to access your email the same way you know how.



That's why to use outlook or any other mail client for that matter.



Have you even used the OX web interface? EVERYTHING causes a round-trip to the server. Even expanding a collapsing a menu-tree that hardly ever changes (if ever).



It's not as quick as it should be. It's certainly not as quick as using what you are (I am) already familiar with.



I use Evolution and Thunderbird and none of them work properly with OX except for imap/smtp mail. And this is the job of courier/postfix/ldap



As I type this, I'm searching for an alternative to OX, and also considering using the usable parts of OX to make my own



marcdm - at - phronein.com

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