June 17, 2008

AtMail Open provides scalable, customizable webmail

Author: Lisa Hoover

Email: businesses can't stay competitive without it, but the bigger a company is, the more of a headache managing an email server can be. There are plenty of email management tools on the market, but many are expensive or lack easy customization. AtMail recently added an open source option to its product line that offers many of the same features commonly found in other Web mail apps, but for the low, low cost of free.

AtMail Open, released under the Apache 2.0 License, is a completely customizable, AJAX-driven webmail client for use in the enterprise. AtMail's customers include such notables as Coldwell Banker and Red Hat India, but Vice President of Sales Corey Bissaillon says the software will scale just as well for smaller customers. "In addition to government, universities, and corporate institutions, we've got nonprofits, ISPs, and so on. In fact, ISPs are big on AtMail because they can rebrand it. And that's all about, obviously, the full source code being available."

Some of AtMail's most popular features include in-line spell checking, address book integration, and the option to compose rich HTML email. Bissaillon says that while part of the interface is AJAX-based, AJAX shouldn't be used for everything "because it does get clunky after a while, so we only use it where it's appropriate -- like in-line spell check -- to give users a smoother experience, to avoid having to refresh the entire page, and so on."

One of AtMail Open's most popular features (also available in the commercial product) is video mail. Rather than bloat the software with a lot of data, videos can be encoded in FLV/Flash format and embedded right in the body of the email. "The twist is that everything is all browser-based," says Bissaillon. "You don't have to download anything in order to be able to record the video. You don't have to have any additional software, it doesn't matter what platform you're on; all you need is a webcam and a microphone." Once a video is recorded, it's uploaded to the open source Flash server Red5. Other AtMail users will receive the video embedded in the email, while non-AtMail users will get a link to view the video on the server via their browsers.

Bissaillon says the company decided to offer an open source version of its commercial product in response to customer demand. "We have potential customers that have to walk away rather than buy our regular webmail interface because they've already just bought a complete email system and don't have any budget left for a new, fancy webmail interface, and yet they want one. Or, they're happy with their back end email system and all they want is a webmail interface to complement it. Rather than turn anyone away, we have this free and open source version that presents a low-risk, zero-cost alternative to the other products out there."

Craig Vosburgh, senior product manager at Verio, says his company reviewed over 20 alternatives before settling on AtMail. "We are currently in a beta launch period and have received extremely positive feedback from our customers," Vosburgh says. He "applauds the release of the open source version, as it will promote a broader and more clear upgrade path that we can offer to our customers."

Hawaii's Department Of Education (DoE) manages as many as 12,000 email accounts with AtMail. Jeff Hara works in the DoE's Network Support Branch and says AtMail was chosen for the student email system in order to "create virtual mail domains and create sub-admin accounts to manage each virtual domain. This way, for each school, we give them their own virtual mail domain with sub-admin account and they can create, modify, and delete the emails for their own students."

Hara says initial implementation of the system was a challenge, not due to a flaw in AtMail, but rather because of the mix of Linux and Solaris servers the DoE was running. "Originally we had four servers in a cluster for our AtMail system. Three servers were doing the front end webmail and mail processing, with one server as the back end MySQL database server with a SAN connection. The front end servers were Linux, with the back end database server being a Solaris 10 box. We recently upgraded to using two of the AtMail appliances as the front end. It has been real solid since we upgraded to this configuration this past summer."

In addition to the open source and commercial webmail interfaces, AtMail also sells appliance and server products to manage the back end of a company's email services. In addition to the desire to "give something back to the open source community," Bissaillon says he hopes AtMail Open will put the company on the radar of businesses that will have appliance needs in the future. "I'm confident that people will appreciate having this well-developed source code available that's easy to customize and able to fill this need for them. Then, when they do need to replace their back end email system, I'm confident they'll remember us and come back."


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