November 11, 2014

Q&A with Aaron Seigo: How Kolab Systems Uses Open Source and Linux

aaron seigo, Kolab SystemsAaron Seigo is one of the most notable personalities in the KDE community. He is the former director of KDE e.V., the body that represents the KDE Community, and also lead the KDE Plasma project which is believed to be one of the most advanced desktop environments. Seigo is a strong supporter of open source and is quite vocal publicly. He recently joined Kolab Systems and took the time to talk about Kolab and his role there. (See the full article, KDE Developer Aaron Seigo Joins Kolab Systems.)

Swapnil Bhartiya: How long have you been involved with the KDE community? What have been your major projects and achievements?

Aaron Seigo: I’ve been involved since around 2001, during which time I’ve worked on a number of areas within the community. I ended up maintaining the panels and parts of the desktop shell in KDE’s 3.x desktop and from there ended up doing the ground-up redesign of the shell we now know as Plasma.

That introduced some radical (at the time) concepts such as device-independent UIs, strong business/UI separation, animation rich interfaces, visual integration of desktop services and visual distinction between the desktop shell and applications running in them.

Outside of technical work, I was also president of KDE’s global non-profit foundation, KDE e.V., and oversaw improvements in how we manage intellectual property, standardizing developer sprints, rigorous reporting and more. It was during this time that I was named one of the top 50 most influential people in IT by silicon.com.

What encouraged you to join Kolab, what is so exciting about the company?

Aaron Seigo: Every office these days relies on a common set of technologies: web access, office documents and email, if not full-blown groupware. Most everything else is less universal. Free software has well-established web browsers (Firefox, e.g.) and office suites (such as LibreOffice), but until the Kolab server and Kontact (a groupware client from KDE) arrived there was nothing to fill the email, calendaring, contacts, etc. integrated system. This was the exclusive domain of proprietary products such as Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes.

Kolab Systems is the company that tends to the technology and the free software community around it, and brings that same technology to the market.They also work on both the server side (Kolab server) and the client side (Roundcube web client, Kontact desktop client and various mobile sync options), which I find very exciting.

While most server categories have dominant free software implements (Apache and nginx for web servers, MySQL and PostgreSQL for database, etc.), the groupware market is still a greenfield. Having the opportunity to help win what is one of the last big server categories for free software is a great challenge and a wonderful way to invest my efforts. It also helps that they have a terrific, world-class team dedicated to improving the technology and spreading the word, with people like Georg Greve who founded the FSFE in upper management positions.

What will be your roles and responsibilities at Kolab?

Aaron Seigo: Immediately, I’m helping execute the Munich project, which is bringing free software for groupware on desktop, web and mobile devices to some 40,000 employees in that German municipality. In the bigger picture, I will be working with the technical team as well as the business development group to help bring the technology to a bigger world stage and increase adoption. This is a task that requires a dedicated, skilled team and I’m happy to come on board and extend that team through my efforts.

Email/communication remains the No. 1 means of interaction among people. It needs as much ‘protection’ as does the ‘cloud’. How does Kolab deal with the challenge of keeping email secure?

Aaron Seigo: There are a couple of intrinsics in Kolab that help greatly: everything is free software, so there is nothing hidden or held back from users; and where there is a standard, it is used. These two things give Kolab an excellent starting position.

Added to that we have a crack security team. We work with a world-renowned security firm in Bern, Switzerland to provide security and auditing services for both MyKolab.com and security features in Kolab itself. When recent vulnerabilities such as heartbleed, shellshock and poodle were released there were immediate fixes rolled out to all affected products within Kolab Systems and our customers were alerted immediately to this.

Finally, we believe in strong personal encryption (leading to GPG being tightly integrated with the desktop client, for instance), only doing what can be done correctly (which is why there is currently no server-side encryption service as the required technology support in web browsers is missing, though I expect that to change in time, technical correctness and picking our legal jurisdictions wisely (which is why MyKolab.com is hosted and administrated from Switzerland). We bring this combination of technology and skill to the Kolab software products, to MyKolab and to our enterprise customers who retain Kolab Systems to design, implement and support their private installations of Kolab.

What is Kolab, the product? Can you tell us a bit more about this open source/shared technology and what problems it solves?

Aaron Seigo: Kolab is a complete end-to-end groupware system. It includes a server which provides email, contacts, calendaring, file storage, task lists, notes, resource allocation, LDAP authentication and management and much more. Essentially, everything you expect from enterprise groupware. All these features are shareable, so people in a company (or at home as we do!) can share calendars, notes, etc.

There is also the web client (Roundcube; the most used web mail software in the world), the desktop client for Windows, MacOS and Linux (Kontact) and synchronization options for every mobile platform in wide use today. An interesting aspect to this is that Kolab uses as many existing free software components as it can, whether that’s the LDAP server, the IMAP system or the web client. The missing parts are developed by the Kolab community, of which Kolab Systems is a hugely significant part, and everything is released as free software and contributed up-stream. This means that Kolab leverages all the fine efforts and proven technology of the broader free software community.

The problem it solves is simple: companies, government and educational environments require groupware: email, calendaring, contacts, who gets to book the meeting room, etc… Kolab is by far and away the best free software option out there and really the only one that can not only compete with the proprietary options but actually best them in terms of features, platform support and extensibility.

What are the core components that ‘build’ Kolab, the product?

Aaron Seigo: There is the Kolab server, the web client (Roundcube) and the desktop client (Kontact). The server side leverages a large collection of free software products, with options at several levels. (See Kolab Enterprise software.)

Kolab web client

Is Kolab using Qt/KDE components?

Aaron Seigo: There are some libraries which are shared between the server and the desktop clients, in fact. The desktop client itself is entirely Qt and KDE Platform (soon KDE Frameworks) based. That client, called Kontact, runs and is supported on Windows, MacOS and Linux (regardless of desktop environment being used). That is only possible thanks to the cross-platform support of Qt and KDE libraries.

As a free software/KDE developer which components of Kolab will you be working on?

Aaron Seigo: Right now I’m working on the desktop client software: Kontact and Akonadi. This makes sense as they use KDE technologies which I am quite familiar with. There is some significant work that needs doing there in the long term, and there are a couple of interesting server-side projects that have already been put in front of me as well. So on the technical side I’ll be kept as busy as I want to be, it seems; which is just about perfect by me.

However, I will also be spending more time next year helping promote and realize market opportunities for Kolab Enterprise and MyKolab, the hosted Kolab service provided by Kolab Systems. So I won’t be writing quite as much code in the future as I turn to focus on technology adoption and promotion.

Does Kolab work with the Linux community? What other open source projects do you (Kolab) work with?

Aaron Seigo: Kolab Systems is the primary sponsor of the Roundcube webmail system. Despite that, Roundcube works perfectly fine with other mail systems, which I think is a testament to how much Kolab Systems “gets” free software. We also work with projects ranging from cyrus-imap to KDE to the 389 Directory server.

We work closely with Linux distributors as well, including Red Hat and Univention. So we are quite integrated with the free software world in both the technical and the business realm. All of the technology we produce is (and always will be) free software and, when sensible, done upstream.

Can you tell us about some major deployments of Kolab around the globe which tells that people are getting more inclined towards open source technologies?

Aaron Seigo: The schools in the canton of Basel in Switzerland are using Kolab, as is the city of Munich in Germany. MyKolab.com which provides full groupware services to tens of thousands of people is powered by Kolab, obviously. There are fortune 100 companies which run Kolab as their groupware solution, though unfortunately I can’t drop names there due to confidentiality.

There are also thousands of installations around the world which are independently managed; I know this first hand as when Kolab was first release around a decade ago I was instrumental in having Kolab deployed in several enterprises in the city I was living in at the time (Calgary, Canada).

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