September 29, 2006

Review: Open-Xchange

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Looking for a Microsoft Exchange replacement, or a first groupware application for your organization? Check out Open-Xchange. I took it for a test drive and found it to be a solid product that works well with open source groupware clients, though its Web interface is a bit clunky.

Open-Xchange is available directly through Open-Xchange or through an Open-Xchange partner such as Collax. Partners may add functionality to Open-Xchange, so the software you get directly from Open-Xchange may differ from what you get from one of the company's partners.

To try out Open-Xchange, I tested the live CD as well as the VMware image and Collax's Open-Xchange Server (OXS) appliance.

Open-Xchange also provides an open source Community Edition which is -- and this should come as no surprise -- harder to install and administer than the Commercial Edition.

Administering Open-Xchange

I can't say too much about installation of Open-Xchange, since the live CD and VMware image come with Open-Xchange pre-installed. I will say that the Collax OXS system is dead easy to install. The procedure consists of a few simple questions, and a confirmation that you'd like to take over the entire disk on the system to run OXS. After about 10 minutes you have a functional Open-Xchange system ready to go.

Once Open-Xchange is installed, you can manage it via a Web-based interface. Here you can add and manage users, start and stop services, set up aliases and domains, manage your SSL certificates, and monitor the system. The admin interface is uncluttered and easy to use. It does, however, lack an integrated help system. It would be nice to have contextual documentation available, as is the norm with most systems I've tested.

The Collax OXS interface differs from the stock Open-Xchange interface, and does have contextual help and "wizards" to set up the system. It also bundles in some tools for easy user administration that aren't present in the stock Open-Xchange distro, including the ability to configure new users in bulk by uploading a spreadsheet with user information.

After reviewing the Zimbra groupware suite, I was underwhelmed by the stock Open-Xchange admin interface. Zimbra provided a number of real-time monitoring and management tools for the mail system, such as recovery features and monitoring of the mail queues, that aren't present in the stock Open-Xchange admin interface.

However, the Collax OXS system does include backup tools and the ability to monitor system resources and perform backups. I was disappointed, though, that OXS only allows backups over SMB, NFS, or to tape. It'd be nice to be able to back up to a disk on the same machine in some situations.

Overall, Open-Xchange is easy to administer. I prefer the OXS tools to the stock Open-Xchange interface, as they provides additional functionality and are a little more pleasant to use.

Using Open-Xchange

How does Open-Xchange fare from the end user's point of view? Open-Xchange has the usual set of features that you'd expect from groupware -- email, calendaring, task and project management, and an address book. Open-Xchange also provides document management, a knowledge base, a forum, and a "pin board" for short notes.

I found the Open-Xchange user interface to be clunky compared to Zimbra or Google's groupware offerings. The interface is still your basic "click a button, wait for the page to reload" Web application. Open-Xchange's performance is excellent, though, so the wait time isn't too bad -- but I've gotten spoiled by Web apps like Gmail that are close enough to desktop applications to be tolerable for everyday use. I could get by using Open-Xchange's Web apps day in and day out, but I wouldn't enjoy it much.

The interface can also be somewhat unintuitive as well. For example, in the Project module, you can add milestones to a project, which are added to the list of milestones at the bottom of the dialog -- but they're not actually saved as milestones unless you click Save at the bottom of the dialog. This is something easily overlooked, since the software seems to be adding the milestone on first glance.

AJAX applications have the upper hand over the plain HTML interface used by Open-Xchange -- many are written so that if you attempt to navigate away from a page with unsaved data, you'll be asked whether you really want to discard unsaved data. With the Open-Xchange interface, you receive no such warning.

Open-Xchange's document management is particularly clunky. You have to move between two different pages to enter all the necessary information, and you're even prompted by Open-Xchange to give the MIME type for a document. Picture for a moment asking the average office user to identify the MIME type of a JPEG, Microsoft Word document, or Zip file when they try to add a document to the document manager. That's not exactly user-friendly.

As far as I can tell, Open-Xchange doesn't even use the user-supplied MIME type; I tried entering some bogus MIME types for different files, but Open-Xchange displayed the MIME types correctly anyway after the file was uploaded.

The good news is that users are not stuck with the Web interface. Open-Xchange can be used with standard email clients (it supports POP3 and IMAP) and desktop groupware applications. I configured Open-Xchange with Kontact, and had no problem getting mail set up, as well as calendaring, tasks, and address book.

Open-Xchange also has an Outlook connector.

Is Open-Xchange for you?

Open-Xchange isn't a bad groupware solution, though its Web interface leaves me cold. I'd suggest comparing it to Zimbra and Scalix to see which suite suits your organization best.

Pricing for Open-Xchange varies. You can deal directly with Open-Xchange and buy licenses for the Commercial Edition starting at $389 for 25 users on one server, plus five licenses for the Outlook OXtender for users who want to connect to the server using Outlook.

Open-Xchange also sells licenses for 25 OXtender users against the GPLed version of Open-Xchange -- so you don't pay for the suite itself, just for connectivity via Outlook or Palm. That starts at $815 for 25 users.

If you're looking to avoid license fees, you can just grab the open source version of Open-Xchange and set it up yourself. This entails a little more elbow grease than the other options, but might be the best option if you don't have the budget for one of the supported packages.

You can also deal with a reseller like Collax and buy Open-Xchange Server, which may be the best option. Collax includes additional wizards and management tools with OXS that make it easier to use, and takes the hassle out of installing the OS. Instead of worrying about support for Red Hat or SUSE Linux, just slap in OXS and the updates for the OS will come directly from Collax.

If you're thinking about setting up Open-Xchange for the first time, I'd recommend starting with Collax's Open-Xchange Server or Collax Business Server. They provide free downloads with five free user licenses, so you can get an Open-Xchange machine up and running quickly and see if it's right for your environment.

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  • Software
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