Microsoft Exchange Server is a popular product used in many organisations, some of which employ it simply as an email server, while others use it to its full extent as a collaborative environment that allows users to automatically schedule meetings with others and share calendars. Exchange Server users can access the system remotely via the Web, which offers a user experience almost identical to that of using Microsoft’s Outlook.
In short, Exchange Server is a boon for many companies, but it does have its limitations, primary among which are the facts that it will only run on a Windows server and costs a significant amount of money. In fact, for many organisations, it’s the former rather than the latter reason that sets them off looking for an alternative solution, and naturally the open-source movement provides just such alternatives. Now we’re not saying that any of these alternatives is perfect, but then many who use Exchange Server would say that isn’t perfect either. Depending on your exact requirements, there are certainly several options for open-source groupware that you can explore at no cost, that run on much cheaper Linux servers and will provide the features you need.
Before we start, a little terminology and background might be in order. Software that manages calendars and so on for a group of people is known as groupware, and Exchange Server provides groupware features as well as being an email server. Most open-source alternatives don’t actually provide an email server, on the grounds that there are plenty of those available, such as QMail, Postfix and Sendmail, so there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Open-source groupware products hook into one of these external email servers and will usually provide a front end that allows the user to compose and read email, but won’t handle the actual sending and receiving themselves.
There are many open-source groupware products around, some of which provide a massive number of features, while others provide just one or two – you can choose the solution that best fits your needs without a lot of feature bloat. Since it’s open source, if you have the programming resources you could customise the package to do exactly what you want simply by writing some extra code (‘simply’ might be a little optimistic here, but if you have developers you can certainly get the job done). You might even start with one of the available projects and customise it extensively until you have something unique to your organisation’s needs. We’ve singled out a couple of the more fully featured open-source groupware projects below and, to find others, a Google search for ‘groupware’ is a good start, or you could try the DMOZ open directory project at www.dmoz.org
One of the largest and most fully featured groupware projects is OpenGroupware.org. (We find it slightly odd that so many large open-source projects put ‘.org’ at the end of their names. It’s almost as if their developers want to make the software sound more technical and frighten off ‘normal’ users. But we digress…) This software is primarily accessed via a web interface, as with most open-source groupware projects, but the development team is working on integrating the server with desktop clients such as Outlook – something that would certainly help increase its take-up. Currently, in order to use Outlook with OpenGroupware.org, you’ll need to buy the ZideLook Outlook Connector, which costs €150 plus VAT, but it’s quite possible that in future an open-source alternative will become available. The server also works happily with Mozilla Calendar and Apple’s iCal and, since it supports WebDAV, any WebDAV client can be used too. The software can also sync with a Palm Pilot.