October 4, 2002

Replacing Microsoft Exchange with a Linux-based solution

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
One of the big reasons cited to continue running Windows on corporate servers despite Linux's greater security and reliability (and lower cost) is a need for Microsoft Exchange, not only for email but also for its calendaring and other "groupware" features. While there is not yet a complete Open Source replacement for Exchange, a number of proprietary "Exchange killers" run on Linux. Today we're going to give you a "sneak preview" of CommuniGate Pro Groupware, a promising new entry in this growing marketplace that will be formally announced Monday.

Here's a quote from a draft press release we obtained from Stalker Software, the company behind CommuniGate Pro:

CommuniGate Pro with Groupware offers a seamless path from Microsoft Exchange, providing migration that is quick and easy with no disruption to the end user. Users are able to continue to send email, arrange meetings, share folders and reply to requests in the familiar Outlook interface.

This is a mighty claim, but CommuniGate Pro (CGP) has proven itself to be one of the most reliable enterprise-level commercial email solutions around. Harvard, Rutgers, Stanford, Boston College and the University of Virginia use it. Dozens of ISPs and public "Web-based" email services use it, as do an uncounted number of companies ranging from "mom and pop" businesses to industry giants like carpet and flooring manufacturer Mohawk Industries. It's a well-respected, mature piece of software, and Stalker is not a new company. It's been around since 1993, and the company is as well-equipped as any software producer in the world to go head-to-head with Microsoft in the corporate email and groupware server business.

Follow the money

The heart of Stalker's pitch for companies considering a move away from Microsoft Exchange is financial. They are publishing documents showing that the three-year total cost of running Exchange for 1,000 users is $415,297, while the cost of running CommuniGate Pro for the same number of users, for the same three years, is only $180,018. These are the kind of numbers that make budget-squeezed IT managers sit up and take notice, especially since the differences in software licensing acquisition costs ($1,199 for Win2K server plus $3,999 for Exchange Server plus $67,000 for Client Access Licenses vs. $120 for Red Hat plus $1,999 for the CGP server license plus $19,999 for 1000 MAPI user licenses) is only a small part of the saving. The rest comes from the fact that Microsoft's new licensing scenario requires an additional $18,000 or so in annual license fees after year number one, plus the fact that CGP requires only half the hardware and half as much administrative (human) expense as Microsoft Exchange.

Remember, Stalker claims that CommuniGate Pro Groupware is a direct, "drop-in" replacement for Exchange. And you can freely download and use Stalker products in "try before you buy" shareware style. Stalker's Web site says:

Until the Server is licensed, it adds a one-line banner to all messages it transfers. There are no disabled features in an unlicensed installation.

After you have installed and configured CommuniGate Pro software, you may run it in the trial mode as long as you need to check all its functionality and features, and to verify its stability in your particular configuration.

Only when the system is up and running to your full satisfaction, should you contact the Stalker Sales staff and purchase the License Keys.

This is a powerful sales tactic, especially in a world of inflated software claims. A CTO or IT manager who is tired of paying Microsoft's ever-increasing server-level software licensing fees, or who believes a non-Exchange groupware solution might save his or her admins a lot of work and stress, can try CPG on one "test" server and see how well it works before jumping into it all the way -- or even getting a purchase order for a license.

Not Open Source, but open standards

Stalker's people say Evolution and Ximian Connector work with CGP. And as Mozilla's and OpenOffice's calendar functions get up to speed, they will too; a major CGP goal is full support of ical and vcal standards, which means this becomes a truly cross-platform solution, unlike Exchange, which excludes Linux and Unix users and doesn't work with Apple's native calendar. Suddenly a company that has been forced to standardize on Windows desktops "so everyone can use Outlook the same way" will be able to let the admin and marketing people use Windows if that's what they like, while art department people can use their beloved Macs, and the techies go with Linux or Unix if that's what they prefer.

If other groupware and corporate messaging software vendors also work "to standards," and they all still support Microsoft Outlook as a desktop client, suddenly Microsoft Exchange will become one of the worst possible choices on the server side due to its proprietary nature and lack of compatibility -- not to mention its licensing costs and massive hardware requirements.

The funny thing is, although it's logical to run CGP on Linux for cost and reliability, you can also run it on common Widows platforms or any one of quite a few others. Stalker claims it will run on over 30 hardware/OS combinations.

CGP is not the only "Exchange Killer" out there

A growing number of companies are offering commercial alternatives to Exchange, most of which run on Linux. We'll look at a number of them in upcoming weeks, one at a time, and we'll follow Free and Open Source groupware solutions as they mature enough to be usable at the enterprise level.

We'd like your contribution to this effort. If you are working with any of the many Linux-based Exchange alternatives, please drop us a line so we can include your experiences in future stories.

Meanwhile, if you're tired of dealing with a balky Exchange server and your client or boss doesn't want to keep paying for Microsoft licenses, and your client or company doesn't really need all of Exchange's (or CommuniGate Pro's) features, you need to read this record of a brief email conversation with Baltimore-area computer consultant Rick Bestany, who recently replaced Exchange with simple old qmail.

Rick: My client is a wholesale seafood company in Jessup. Almost all of the
people there wouldn't know the difference between Exchange and any other
mail server. They were running Exchange because their previous admin was
an MCSE and had the "MS or die" attitude.

When I entered the scene (in April), their Exchange server was not
working properly. It was on an old HP, the disk was maxed, and most of
the users couldn't even get mail. I brought in an old Pentium II
machine, installed RH 7.3 and qmail, added the users and visited each
workstation to change the login info. Total time spent was about four
hours, and nobody has mentioned anything about email since.

The only change I made since was to reformat the old mail server and
install qmail there so I could get my PII back.

Newsforge: Did they whine about lost functionality or did qmail do all they really needed?

Rick: No whining. qmail did it all.

Newsforge: Did they save money?

Rick: Yes.

Newsforge: Are they happy?

Rick: Yes.


  • News
Click Here!