September 26, 2006

First look: Scalix 11 Community Edition messaging server

Author: Michael Stutz

While the release of the new open source Scalix 11 Community Edition messaging server is still a few months away, the binaries have been brought out in a preview package that is, according to the license that comes with it, "pre-release software with known issues and is not suitable for production use." We tried it out, just to see where Scalix is heading. The good news -- it's heading in the right direction for small and medium-sized businesses.

Scalix 11 officially runs on Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3.0/4.0, SUSE Enterprise Server 9, openSUSE 10.0, and Fedora Core 5. Older versions and other distributions can use the "Community Edition Raw"; the company has provided very thorough instructions for its complicated installation.

The system has many software requirements, from Sendmail to Tomcat; a full list is given in the online documentation. You also need at least 512MB of RAM and 1GB of disk space (most of which is for system data -- the actual software takes up about 200MB).

It seems like a lot is necessary to even get started, but for an enterprise messaging system the requirements are actually on the modest side -- Scalix's head of open source development claims to run a test server on his personal laptop. For smaller enterprises this is bound to be attractive, considering that Microsoft's upcoming Exchange Server 2007 reportedly will require 64-bit hardware, which would force a small business with a three-year-old email server to upgrade its hardware in order to run it.


You need to read the Scalix installation manual closely before attempting anything -- there's a whole chapter dedicated to planning for the install -- but once you're ready, a Python-based installer takes you through the setup process. Near the beginning of the install you can choose between a "typical" install where the components are selected for you and a "custom" install where you can select the components you like. The installer unpacks what seems like a dozen RPM files for the various Scalix components: there's the Scalix Server itself; Scalix Administration Console (SAC), the optional administrative Web client; the Scalix Remote Execution Service (RES), which handles communication between the Scalix server and the SAC; Scalix Tomcat; Scalix Search and Index (SIS); Scalix Platform API; and Scalix Mobile, the Web client for cell phones and other wireless devices.

You're not limited to the standard GUI installation -- you can also perform a CLI installation, which isn't the hands-on manual install you might infer from the name. It's actually just a text-based version of the same installer wizard used by the GUI install, so it probably should be named "text-only" install. A third method, "silent," is available for automated installs.

Scalix is based on Hewlett-Packard's long-gone OpenMail software, and interestingly, most of the commands still begin with "om." For example, the omon tool starts Scalix services, and the ommon tool monitors the system. Tools are installed in the /opt directory, and there are a lot of them -- well over 300 in the server package alone.

Unlike the proprietary Scalix editions, there are no mandatory license keys to deal with, but you are warned that Scalix comes with a "phone home" feature -- your server and install information will be periodically sent back to Scalix. The local admin does get a copy of this information so that he can confirm that "the content is simple, transparent, and non-sensitive," but it breaks the licensing conditions if you attempt to disable this "feature."

New features

As for real features, Scalix 11 has many that are new and appealing. One of the big advances is the internationalization effort, with complete Unicode and double-byte character support. Localization and character set support is essential for the Asian market, which it appears that Scalix is targeting with this release.

The other big change in Scalix 11 is the availability of a new Web client. Scalix Web Access Mobile is for cell phones and other wireless devices, and provides the rudimentary email controls with tiny GIF images. The AJAX-based administrative Web client, Scalix Administration Console (SAC), now allows for plug-ins, called "SAClets," that can extend its functionality. Using the SAC, it's possible to perform local and remote administration from a browser; if you plan on using it remotely, the install lets you configure Kerberos for secure access.

Another new feature is real-time Search and Index service for email messages, which appears to be built on Lucene. Scalix can also be localized easily by editing a properties file and specifying the language property. Current language options are Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish. You can also add your own custom analyzer for other languages.

Scalix takes a hands-off, plug-in approach to virus protection: instead of developing its own system, you plug in third-party applications. Since virus scans occur inside the Scalix server, you're also guarded against in-house virus outbreaks.

Spam filtering works differently. Scalix itself allows you to configure SpamAssassin to run within the Scalix server, and you can set up your own anti-spam system outside of Scalix on another server.

Well documented

It's easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of programs that Scalix 11 comes with, so it's nice to see that they all have proper man pages. Also helpful is an examples directory that gives you nearly a dozen example scripts that show how to do basic administrative tasks such as producing audit files and applying directory updates to a remote Scalix system. The preview package itself comes with a typical "release notes" file, and the Web clients have online help.

Outside of the above, no documentation is actually shipped with the preview package; the documentation directory contains a URL to the Scalix documentation site, from which all of the manuals can be downloaded. There are a good half dozen of them, including a 142-page Installation Guide and a 148-page Setup Guide. You're going to need to study these, because it's clear that, like any similar enterprise email server, you're not going to set up and start managing even a small Scalix system overnight.

The company also offers a lot of online support, including a public message forum and a wiki.

Premium and non-free editions

Scalix has a two-tier user system: Standard and Premium. Standard users get email access and use of a personal calendar, but certain features and functions are reserved for licensed Premium users, including Outlook client support, group scheduling, public folders, and wireless email.

With the free Community Edition, you get an unlimited number of Standard users and a free license for a maximum of 25 Premium users, which for most smaller enterprises is probably more than enough.

But users of the Community Edition are missing out on some of the features that are available in the proprietary Enterprise Edition. It's capable of multiple servers, allows you to purchase unlimited Premium licensing, and has additional technical support options. There's also a Small Business Edition, which is essentially the same thing as the Enterprise Edition but only allows single-server operation.

An enterprise-ready system

As of this writing, Scalix has about 400 commercial customers, but Florian von Kurnatowski, the director of the open source project, said that based on the results of a company survey they believe there are more than 10,000 Scalix servers in operation today and more than a million users. He also said that they've had more than 35,000 downloads of the Community Edition. You can assume that those aren't all just casual looky-loos -- it's not exactly a whimsy for a slow afternoon, and the compressed Scalix 11 download is larger than 300 megabytes.

Although Scalix was founded in 2002, HP OpenMail goes back 15 years, and its final release number was 7. In late 2003, Scalix 8 was the company's debut product, based on that legacy HP code.

For a small business, getting a system with the long development history that Scalix 11 has is a good thing -- you'll benefit from reliability that may not be found with newer software. As long as your enterprise doesn't require group calendaring needs for more than a few dozen users, the open source Scalix 11 Community Edition looks like a promising solution.


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