How do Open Source groupware solutions measure up?

by Sali Earls & Matthew Linden

How do Open Source groupware solutions measure up?Sirius Corporation is one of Europe’s leading Open Source consultancies with development staff who have contributed to the success of many Open Source software projects including Samba and OpenLDAP.

The company is the founding member of the Open Source Consortium, formed with the assistance of the Society of Information Technology Management – SOCITM , and the Open Standards Alliance to represent the Open Source business community in Europe.

Recently, Sirius Corporation successfully implemented an Open Source network infrastructure for a 120 person engineering and risk consultancy business with a number of regional offices in the UK and the Middle East.

The customer wanted an Open Source groupware solution that, in addition to standard IMAP and SMTP e-mail services, would allow them to use group calendars with Microsoft Outlook 2003 as the client.

Matthew Linden, Projects Director at Sirius Corporation, gave an explanation of the selection process and evaluation of various Open Source alternatives to enable their clients work with MS Outlook in an Open Source environment.

Selection Criteria
It was important that the chosen solution should work well alongside the email technologies and protocols already used (Sendmail, Cyrus and OpenLDAP). The selection criteria used were:

Group calendaring functionality
Microsoft Outlook 2003 compatibility
PDA synching capability
Minimum change required of users
Project viability (openness, membership, activity, profile/visibility)
Solution architecture
Support for open standards (WebDAV, CalDAV, GroupDAV and iCAL)
How do Open Source groupware solutions measure up?Sirius tested and evaluated the best known Open Source groupware solutions including Zimbra, Kolab, Hula, Open Xchange and OpenGroupware, and Linden shares his evaluation of these with

Zimbra first caught our eye through a heavy PR campaign last year and was, at first, glance the front runner. Only the commercial “network” edition of the software promised Outlook compatibility, although at the time of the trial a pre-release version of their MAPI connector was not made available to us for testing.

The Open Source version of Zimbra installed smoothly and relatively easily. The Zimbra web interface is polished and attractive allowing calendar entries to be easily linked with URLs and e-mail addresses and dragged, dropped and manipulated in a highly intuitive fashion. As a Java application, Zimbra did appear to run rather slow, but this was on a Xen virtual test server with limited memory.

Where Zimbra really lost out, however, was its architecture and group calendaring functionality. When we tested Zimbra, group calendaring was promised in the next version which would not have helped us greatly with our client’s requirement. The other aspect of Zimbra which ruled it out for our deployment was that it came as a single bundle of modified versions of Postfix and OpenLDAP with its own hand- rolled IMAP server – all of these logging to a single file. As we were looking to build a modular and highly scalable architecture, using standard or transparently modified Open Source packages, we did not wish to use a monolithic bundle of vendor-modified software.

Whilst Zimbra may represent a good solution for small companies wishing to install all their e-mail, calendaring and directory services on a single box without worrying too much how it works, it may not be the ideal solution for larger companies wishing to deploy groupware alongside other enterprise-class Open Source infrastructure.

How do Open Source groupware solutions measure up?Kolab has a high profile as the preferred KDE groupware solution and has won a number of awards. However, as with Zimbra, it comes as a monolithic bundle of modified applications installing as RPMs (of all things) on Debian via openpkg. We found the installation rather messy and were not impressed with the available documentation. Kolab requires a commercial plugin for Outlook compatiblity. The demo Konsec connector we tried did not work with Outlook 2003, which was not surprising as documentation was only available for Outlook 2000.

Whilst Kolab has a reasonably intuitive management web GUI it has no web interface for the user and requires a compatible client (Kontact or Outlook). As our Konsec connector did not work with Outlook 2003 we were not able to evaluate the group calendaring functionality in the context required by our client.

Open Xchange
Open Xchange, as with Zimbra, has an effective PR and marketing organisation behind it. Whilst the commercial version of the software may install smoothly, the Open Source version certainly does not. We waded through approximately twenty pages of intricate instructions and installed almost every Java package known to man. We finally decided against Open Xchange when the PostgreSQL setup files supplied with the Open Source version of the software proved to be horribly broken.

Overall we felt that the Open Source version of Open Xchange is neither well supported by its vendor nor that it would provide a robust and reliable solution for our client.

How do Open Source groupware solutions measure up?Hula, the Novell-developed Open Source groupware solution, fell at the first hurdle by not providing support for Outlook as the client. Although the web interface is attractive, it is not particularly intuitive. The management interface however appeared to be sitting on top of some very ugly legacy code.

OpenGroupware is not perfect. The web GUI is functional rather than attractive. Outlook 2003 compatibility requires the installation of additional server software (Zidestore) which manages translation to and from MAPI. Zidestore has a dependency on Apache 1.3 which can cause unpredictable conflicts if you have previously chosen Apache 2.0 as your preferred server for OpenGroupware.

But OpenGroupware does do the job. It provides a fully functional webmail and web calendaring solution with support for WebDAV, CalDAV, GroupDAV and iCAL, as well as a backend solution for group calendaring with Outlook as the client (although be careful that you are using Outlook 2003 as earlier versions of Outlook do not allow simultaneous use of group calendaring and IMAP).

The Outlook plugin and Zidestore server cost 30 euros per seat. OpenGroupware and Zidestore integrate easily with OpenLDAP and work well alongside Cyrus and Sendmail.

In the context of the infrastructure deployment we undertook for our client OpenGroupware met all the requirements. In fact our only disappointment was that the Mozilla Foundation’s Sunbird has not yet managed to come up with full support for group calendaring so that we could recommend a cleaner, leaner and Open Source calendaring client. Many of our client’s staff are already eagerly moving to Thunderbird for their e-mail.

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