February 22, 2007

Zimbra and OSS answer college's prayers for cost-effective enterprise apps

Author: Tina Gasperson

St. Vincent's is a Catholic liberal arts college in Latrobe, Penn. With budget constraints typical of many small private educational institutions, the school is taking deliberate steps to use more open source software. Recently it ditched Microsoft Exchange in favor of Zimbra.

"We like the concept of open source as opposed to paying a high license fee and then high maintenance fees," CIO Tom Morrison says. "We like the idea of paying for support, not the product. I think it encourages the provider to continue to maintain a high level of value, because we're not locked into a proprietary license."

The college sought to find a messaging and collaboration application with less restrictive license terms than Microsoft's, but comparable functionality. The search for something more open led Morrison to Zimbra, an open source collaboration and messaging application. "Last summer we made the move off of Microsoft Exchange," he says.

There were a few challenges in the transition. "The biggest issue dealt with browser performance on older systems. Some users experienced initial inbox load times greater than one minute," Morrison says. "This caused a fair amount of concern for those who wanted to quickly check email between classes. Zimbra was working on a 'lite' version of its Web client, but it was not ready for production. Therefore, we installed a rather minimal version of SquirrelMail to provide a faster Web client." Other than that glitch, Morrison says his experience with Zimbra has been good. "We can pick up the phone, or email, and get support from Zimbra and from their customers." He plans to test Zimbra's new HTML-only mail client in the near future.

Before the Zimbra conversion, Morrison and his staff had already started using open source tools in other areas. "We've been on the WebGUI platform for about two years," he says. WebGUI calls itself an "application framework that handles content management." Morrison says, "It has enabled us to grow our Web site dramatically," allowing his team to create a rich Web experience for students, including an intranet, Web mail service, and online registration. As a CMS, it makes it possible for departments to update their own information without help from the IT staff.

"We had another CMS for about a year, from a small local company," Morrison says. "We found that it was struggling to evolve. Our choice to use WebGUI was based on a relatively brief survey of offerings."

In spite of the growing use of open source, Morrison says that the school is still "predominately Windows-based," though he and his director of network services are Mac users. Morrison says that platform makes them more aware of the benefits of open source. "That environment enjoys a lot of open source solutions. It just becomes more and more obvious to us that the open source model represents a great opportunity for solutions that are very affordable."

And while he is on the lookout for ways to save money, Morrison says a low price isn't the bottom line. "Our budget forces us to look at where we can get the greatest value -- not the cheapest thing," he says. "We can't afford to just install cheap if it doesn't provide great functionality. We look for products that have had great success."

Morrison has found that transitioning to open source hasn't been all smooth sailing. "We've had some bumps along the way," Morrison says. "We've had some performance issues with WebGUI. It can be a little more challenging in open source because we don't have one organization we can go to and say, 'Make it work for us.'" One of the challenges is that Morrison uses some Mac OS X servers, including the one that WebGUI runs on, and it was difficult to determine the exact source of the performance slowdowns. "We didn't know if it was a WebGUI code problem, MySQL, or a Mac OS X issue. It really fell to us to try to figure that out."

Morrison says other schools considering a move toward open source need to think about those support issues. "They need to know the nature of the organization from which they would derive support. Are there good contacts available if they don't have sufficient internal resources? And do those organizations have a good reputation? Is the product well accepted in the industry? I would talk to some other people who have implemented the software and make sure they feel that the move to that platform has been a good move.

"Clearly, there's more risk being the first one out. Depending on the criticality of the applications, one might say it's worth it, but if it's mission-critical, just like with proprietary software, you need to do a thorough analysis and find out who you are hitching your wagon to."

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