May 9, 2005

Hula brings open source groupware to SMBs

Author: Paul Virijevich

Linux adoption by small and medium-sized businesses is being held back by the lack of an open source groupware server that's easy to install and configure. SMBs will see little cost advantage from using Linux after adding in the cost an enterprise groupware product. But this problem may soon be a thing of the past, with the recent launch of the Hula project. Hula is an ambitious, open source project jump-started with more than 200,000 lines of code donated from Novell's NetMail product.

Hula provides:

  • Email, with the option to share folders
  • Web, POP3, and IMAP mail access
  • Calendaring with shared calendars
  • Browser-based administration
  • The ability to support 200,000 registered users per server with up to 50,000 simultaneous connections

Although Hula is not yet production-ready, its NetMail foundation code provides Hula with a tremendous amount of functionality right now. I recently put Hula to the test to evaluate its prospects for small businesses in need of groupware.

Quick setup

The Hula project provides binaries for Gentoo, Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, Mandrake, Novell Linux Desktop 9, and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9. If your distribution is not in this list, or if you just like to install from source, Hula also provides a tarball. I used APT to install Hula on Ubuntu 5.04 without any problems.

Before running Hula, you need to configure it for your environment using the hulasetup command. To configure Hula to use your domain and DNS servers, call hulasetup with the following options:

hulasetup --domain=whatever.yourdomainis.com --dns=dnsserver.address.com

If you are installing Hula on an internal network that does not need to reach the Internet, you can skip these options. Hula will default to localhost.localdomain for your domain.

hulasetup can also specify which ports to run which services on. For example, if your server is already running a mail server on port 25, you could tell Hula to use another port with:

hulasetup --smtp=30

When finished with hulasetup, start Hula with the command:

hulamanager

Now point your browser to whatever.yourdomainis.com:89 to log into Hula's Web-based administration utility. Login as user admin with the password hula. All of Hula's administration must be done from this interface; there is no command-line administration tool available.

To add a user, click on Tree->Context and then on the create button at the bottom right of the screen. This pops up a window listing all of the objects you can add to your tree. Click on User, and then fill out the form with your users' information. When you've finished, users will be able to log into the Web-based client at whatever.yourdomainis.com:8080 and start using Hula.

I found it easy to set up test accounts that could send and receive email. All of the email functionality worked as advertised, including shared folders. I also tested POP3 access to these accounts in Thunderbird with no problems.

The Web-based mail and calendar clients look great and can only get better. The user interface is not cluttered with unnecessary options. Novice users will have few problems figuring out how to use and configure their mail and calendar settings.

The only technical problem I encountered was with calendars. While the default calendar worked fine, shared calendars did not. New calendars failed to show up in users' Mailbox Folder List. The recipient of a shared calendar could subscribe to it and the sender could verify that it was being shared by going into Preferences->Shared Folders, but when it came to actually being able to use the calendars, they were nowhere to be found.

My only user interface concern is with the administrator's interface. This is where the Novell heritage really shows. The interface looks like something straight out of Netware. Hopefully, this will be reworked to make basic administration tasks more straightforward. For example, adding a user requires clicking on Tree->Context in the left browser pane, then on the create button at the bottom of the right pane. Doing this then brings up a popup window that lets you add the user. I hope to see something more intuitive before a final release.

The only feature I noticed missing was a spell-checker in the email client.

Looking forward, the most exciting thing about the Hula project are its goals. The developers want Hula to do a few things and to do them better than any other project. The two stated goals of the Hula project are to make sharing and using calendars easy, and to provide a rich Web client similar to Google's GMail.

Some of the future plans for calendaring are:

  • The ability to easily publish and share calendars online
  • An appointment manager to track invitations and responses to events
  • A text-based interface for accessing your calendar from email, IM, or SMS
  • PDF creation of calendars for easy printing

Hula is in a position to become the dominant open source groupware solution. A free and open source groupware solution that is both easy to install and configure is just what Linux needs to penetrate the small and medium sized business market. Although it's not production-ready yet, now is the time to start familiarizing yourself with this future star of the open source world.

Category:

  • Enterprise Applications
Click Here!