August 9, 2006

'Exchange killers' are successfully stalking Microsoft messaging

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

A few years ago, small open source-based companies that dared to challenge Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes in the corporate email and collaboration server marketplace got "David challenges Goliath, isn't that special?" stories written about them. Now, open source messaging and collaboration software providers are a normal part of the IT business landscape. And, according to OpenXchange Executive Vice President of Marketing Strategy Dan Kusnetzky, their products' acceptance is increasing steadily -- and not just among hard-core GNU/Linux and open source devotees.Indeed, Kusnetzky recalls, when OpenXchange exhibited at the 2006 Boston LinuxWorld conference as part of the IBM mega-booth there, the company only had 11 people stop by and talk to them. But at the National Educational Computing Conference in July, 2006, they had about 400 booth visitors, and at least 10% of them were immediate sales prospects.

Kusnetzky points out that Linux itself was once an oddity, but that it has evolved, he says, from being "interesting in and of itself to being a normal part of the infrastructure." Now, he believes, open source email and collaboration software products are going through a similar evolution. OpenXchange and competitors such as Scalix and Zimbra are no longer of interest only to a small clique of open source believers, but are being widely distributed through partnerships with "mainstream" ISVs, consultants, and hundreds of VARs. (OpenXchange alone claims 650 VAR relationships.)

Here's an interesting list Kusnetzky gave us: Reasons people have given for not buying OpenXchange. OpenXchange competitors probably hear a similar litany.

  1. Some companies are already familiar with Microsoft Exchange. Even if their current software is not entirely satisfactory, Kusnetzky believes it's often easiest for corporate decisionmakers to "go with what they they already know."
  2. Some organizations have concerns about dealing with a small company. Even though OpenXchange has been around for 10 years, and has customers in 60 countries, it's still tiny compared with Microsoft or IBM. And many other Exchange-replacement vendors are smaller than OpenXchange.
  3. A company hires a consultant, and that consultant "suggests what he knows," Kusnetzky says, "whether it's [Novell's] Groupwise, Microsoft, Lotus, whatever."
  4. A potential customer may have specialized requirements based on technology it already owns. For example, OpenXchange supports only the PostgreSQL database and Tomcat Java. You can use freely downloadable open source OpenExchange however you want, and rely on community support if, for instance, you prefer MySQL over PostgreSQL or JBoss over Tomcat, but if your company believes it must have commercial support, these are not options OpenXchange offers. The company has consciously chosen to support only the most popular option, not every possible one. "Sometimes," Kusnetzky says, "this will drive customers to competing products."
  5. A counterintuitive complaint Kusnetzky says he's heard more than once is that OpenXchange offers "too many functions." Yes, any that a customer doesn't need can be turned off or made visible only to a selected subset of users, but apparently some IT people would rather have things just the way they (think they) want them by default, rather than having a wide range of customization options from which to choose.

And then there are companies that make serious inquiries and don't buy, but won't say why they didn't. Kusnetzky and I jointly speculated that some of these bid-seekers are using quotes from OpenXchange and other smaller players in the collaboration software business as leverage to get better deals from Microsoft. But we have no data here, so this is merely "two guys talking" conjecture, not fact.

As a rule, Kusnetzky says that while other open source collaboration software players may offer features OpenXchange lacks (just as OpenXchange has features they lack), he doesn't see much direct head-butting with them, but rather tends to see sales inquiries from companies that "typically want to get away from Microsoft or IBM -- or who never had a collaborative solution in the first place."

I was a little shocked to hear that there are still corporate entities that do not have their own email systems in place, but Kusnetzky assures me that there are plenty of them -- usually small companies that start as one-person or two-person businesses, with the founders using Hotmail or AOL or Yahoo! or other personal email addresses that they keep using out of inertia until -- finally -- they grow to the point where they have no choice but to centralize their messaging and start thinking about things like shared calendars, shared documents, and other collaboration features.

Apparently these growing companies represent a significant piece of the market for email and collaboration servers. And since they aren't already locked into Microsoft Exchange or another old-line proprietary collaboration product, they are extra-strong prospects for low-cost -- usually open source -- email and collaboration software.

Kusnetzky says OpenXchange has been showing "steady" sales growth, both by replacing existing proprietary collaboration software installations and by getting a good bit of business from small companies getting their first-ever email or collaboration servers either in software form or as turnkey appliances like the ones OpenXchange partner Systems Solutions sells.

But there's one kind of business Kusnetzky says is truly hard for his company or any of its competitors to penetrate: Companies that have found a FOSS email solution they like, a calendar utility that meets their needs, and perhaps a shared contact list program that works for them, for which they have written their own scripts to "glue" their chosen solutions together. These companies, Kusnetzky says, "are usually happy with what they have. They scripted it all themselves, and made everything work just the way they want it to."


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