April 10, 2003

Replacing MS Exchange with Communigate Pro

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Stalker Software's Communigate Pro is an increasingly popular corporate email/groupware alternative to Microsoft's Exchange Server. According to Stalker spokesperson Philip Slater, it supports "any POP or IMAP client on the market. We never have a compatibility problem. We even support pine."

The problem Communigate Pro and other Exchange competitors have is not with email, but is with collaboration (groupware) and calendaring functions, especially if they want to make them work on multiple platforms. Even Exchange alternatives that fully support Outlook and Outlook Express functions have trouble with other clients -- especially those you may find on a Linux desktop. The reality for commercial Exchange competitors (and presumably for non-commercial ones that would like to make their mark in the world) is that Outlook and Outlook Express dominate the email/groupware client marketplace so heavily that hardly any company is going to install email/groupware server software right now that doesn't work with Microsoft's desktop programs, even if they must make a devil's bargain to give up support for other email clients in return for full Outlook compatibility.

iCal "coming soon"

The iCal standard has been exploited heavily by Apple, who has made very pretty use of it. It is also used by the (open source) Mozilla Calendar and many others. It has been an evolving standard that is only now stabilizing enough that Stalker and other commercial groupware vendors (and enterprise-conscious free software developers) are starting to incorporate it into their server software in a big way. Slater says Communigate Pro 4.1 (now under development) will support iCal/vCal standards. He says that when 4.1 is available, users will no longer need Outlook to get Outlook-like functionality. In fact, they won't even need their own computer. They will be able to use others' computers -- in Internet cafes or wherever -- to access their Outlook-alike functions through whatever Web browser is available, even a browser running on a handheld device.

There seems to be only one major groupware client that will not soon support iCal as its default. That would be (you guessed it) Outlook. There's an open source project called Outport working on the problem of making Outlook interface with the rest of the world, which may help take care of that problem. And, of course, as Communigate Pro and other groupware programs move beyond Outlook's user-level feature set, the simplest solution -- in a technical sense -- will be to simply move users away from Outlook.

Sadly, many marketing-susceptible desktop computer users will resist this action even if the Outlook replacement they are offered is easier to use, and the servers behind it cost less to purchase and maintain than Exchange. So we must accept Outlook on at least some coworkers' desktops as a reality for the time being, and deal with it as best we can.

Communigate Pro costs less than Exchange

Frank Maestan of TTS Performance Systems has been serving his small company's Outlook desktops with Communigate Pro since June 2001. He says the move saved $1800 above Communigate Pro's cost that he would have had to spend on licensing fees to upgrade from NT Server and TTS's old version of Exchange for their 15 seats, plus the switch removed the need for a $700 backup system designed for Exchange that Frank says caused so much trouble he'd "be back in the server room for three or four hours after every Exchange server crash."

Frank had no trouble moving to Communigate Pro. "I had no install hassles even though at the time I was still pretty much of a Linux newbie," he says. "It is a very clean install, even in the update area when they release upgrades, it's fine."

Frank claims his Communigate email/groupware server "has been running since August, unattended other than putting a backup tape in there -- unlike the Exchange thing."

He also says that if Microsoft suddenly decided to offer him Exchange for free, "I'd probably put it over in a stack with my AOL disks. I don't think I'd use it."

An easy glide from Windows to Linux

Stalker's Slater notes that the company's license covers use on any operating system you choose; if you're still running Windows servers when you switch to Communigate Pro, and later move to Linux, you won't need to buy new licenses.

Another feature he says customers love -- once they notice it -- is that Communigate Pro can handle much larger file attachments than Exchange. "We have a lot of people [users] who are using email as ftp," he says. He points out that aside from direct file size limitations, Exchange keeps messages individually instead of putting all of an individual user's email in a single file, so Exchange uses lots more storage per MB of email than other programs. And while storage may be cheap compared to a few years ago, buying and maintaining ever-increasing amounts of it still adds up. Fast.

Growing competition for Exchange

Every time we turn around, we seem to find another alternative for Microsoft Exchange. As the iCal standard becomes more mature, we can expect even more of them -- and we can expect the assorted Exchange-alikes to not only work better with each other, but to completely eliminate the need for notoriosly virus-susceptible Outlook without giving forcing users to give up any of their favorite email, messaging or groupware features.

The one lack in this area seems to be a mature, fully usable 100% open source or free software Exchange replacement. One will come along sooner or later, no doubt, but for the moment it looks like lower-cost-than-Exchange proprietary solutions like Communigate Pro are the most likely candidates to replace Exchange in corporate server rooms.

Author's note: If you have a fully-functional, enterprise-level "Exchange replacement" email and messaging server system actually up and running nothing but open source and/or free software, we would like to write about it. Please contact me by email and we'll schedule a phone, IRC or IM interview.

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