Linux e-mail platforms pack a punch

E-mail is a killer application. Your organization can become immobilized when messages don't flow. Servers need to be restarted for security patches. Whole infrastructures must be taken offline for costly hardware upgrades that provide redundancy or satisfy mailboxes bloated with duplicate attachments.

One way to break this never-ending routine is to go the Linux route for e-mail and calendaring. Before you dismiss this as totally unrealistic, given your significant investment in Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Notes/Domino, or Novell GroupWise, take some time to consider two strong Linux e-mail and calendar solutions: Scalix 10 and Zimbra Collaboration Suite 3.0.

Yes, Linux requires serious admin skills; fortunately, at the mail server, Scalix and Zimbra apply AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) strengths in creating GUI consoles; these ease maintaining user accounts.

Both products employ strong AJAX Web clients that are superior to the likes of, for example, OWA (Outlook Web Access). Functionality and cross-platform compatibility is so good that companies can seriously consider dropping desktop e-mail clients altogether. Of course, both vendors would be pleased for enterprises to scrap their existing mail systems, and both offer migration tools for this task. But the products also coexist nicely with, for example, Outlook clients and Active Directory.

Weighting everything, Scalix and Zimbra are laudable solutions to what may be your current fragile, high-cost e-mail setting.

Scalix10

Scalix 10 is a robust application based on HP OpenMail, a product respected for its performance and scalability. Scalix adds many improvements and enhancements.

First, Outlook users can connect to a Scalix mail server without noticing any functional difference. Version 10 also solves what's been a persistent problem with desktop Linux: getting Novell Evolution to play happily with other mail systems. Scalix Connect for Evolution does the trick.

Many users, however, can forego e-mail software, because an advanced AJAX Web client, SWA (Scalix Web Access), has the look and functionality of a desktop application. Interoperability extends throughout Scalix. For example, messages retain their full formatting as they flow between the Scalix mail server, desktop clients, and Web clients. The same holds true for enterprise calendaring and scheduling, as users of disparate systems can see others' busy time and make meeting appointments.

Scalix 10 sports a professional GUI setup app and a traditional Linux CLI. After I received help from Scalix engineers to get past odd Linux configuration barriers, installing Scalix server components took me 15 minutes. Setting up accounts, managing users and groups, and overseeing Scalix servers was easy from the Scalix Administration Console. But more detailed systems tasks, such as backup, are possible only with the CLI.

My testing of Scalix on the desktop started with Connect for Outlook; this adds a profile to Outlook for connecting to a Scalix mail server. The connect app can be automatically distributed and configured with SMS, Alteris, or other common deployment tools.

In each test -- creating public folders, managing rich text e-mail, creating calendar items, delegating tasks, updating contacts -- Outlook behaved as if I was working with an Exchange server. Moreover, I had no trouble creating local folders and working offline.

Scalix Connect for Evolution works much the same on Linux desktops. It allowed me to create, for instance, HTML messages that retained their formatting when viewed in Outlook.

SWA's multipane window, menus, and buttons offer an experience similar to that of Eudora, Outlook, or other e-mail clients. SWA has a familiar folder tree for organizing messages. Creating messages in plain text or HTML was no problem, nor was looking up addresses in the Scalix global directory, LDAP, or local address book. This high comfort level extended to working with the calendar.

SWA performance was fast, as the application and folders are cached on the local computer. I could compose and send new messages from the moment I logged in. Drag-and-drop functionality, which is uncommon for a Web app, allowed me to do all the expected desktop tasks, such as moving messages from one folder to another or rearranging calendar appointments. Furthermore, all features worked problem-free using Internet Explorer, Mozilla, and Firefox.

As opposed to OWA, SWA allows you to work with whole folders, rather than having to page through to find a message. However, I would like to see more robust search -- an edge for Zimbra.

For wireless e-mail, Scalix offers the separate NotifyLink for Scalix from Notify Technology. This is a combination gateway server that communicates with the Scalix mail server and clients. Although this does add a bit more complexity to a Scalix setup, it's in line with other solutions in this class. Going beyond client interoperability, Scalix also coexists with Exchange servers using TNEF (Transport Neutral Encapsulation Format). Implementing this is a larger project that would typically require Scalix professional services. Finally, Scalix has a certification program, ScalixReady, for spam, antivirus, and commercial backup products. This allows IT managers to know whether Scalix 10 will work with tools already in place.

Scalix proved to me it knows its way around MAPI better that any non-Microsoft vendor I've encountered. Combine that with SWA's rich functionality and the product's Linux and OpenMail underpinning, and Scalix delivers an industrial-strength solution.

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