September 27, 2006

Zimbra sets sights on Exchange, and beyond

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

There's no shortage of messaging and collaboration suites trying to unseat Microsoft Exchange, but many of the suites are still playing catch-up with Microsoft in terms of features. Zimbra, on the other hand, seems to be on par with Exchange in many ways -- and ahead of Exchange for hosting providers and in collaboration features.

I talked with Scott Dietzen, president and CTO of Zimbra, about the suite and what it has to offer. Zimbra's features go beyond the traditional messaging components of email, calendaring, and contact management. The 4.0 release of Zimbra includes VoIP and mobile synchronization features you won't find in Microsoft Exchange, and document collaboration features that put Zimbra on a par with Microsoft SharePoint.

Zimbra 4.0 provides a "wiki-like" editing environment to create documents, and also allows users to view more than 200 document types -- as read-only HTML -- in Zimbra itself. Dietzen says that this provides a security advantage as well as being more convenient, as users don't have to worry about viruses in the sanitized HTML versions of the documents.

According to Dietzen, groupware applications will need to include the document features to match Microsoft SharePoint, since the company is increasingly bundling SharePoint with Exchange when selling to customers. In fact, Dietzen says that he expects that SharePoint will be "tightly integrated" with Exchange 12 when it is released.

Zimbra also differs from Exchange in that it provides SOAP bindings to allow third parties to integrate additional functionality with Zimbra. For example, Dietzen says that the SOAP bindings would allow integration with customer resource management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, links to Web applications like Yahoo! Maps, and so forth.

Not just for small businesses

Adding functionality is an important feature for one of Zimbra's target markets -- namely, hosted solution providers. This is a sweet spot for Zimbra, according to Dietzen, because Exchange hasn't done a great job at allowing administrators to manage multiple domains and delegated domains -- something he says Zimbra is very good at.

Given that Zimbra has been around only for a short time, comparatively speaking, you might be surprised to know that Zimbra is being used for high-end deployments with companies like H&R Block, Voxel dot Net, San Mateo Regional Networks, and a number of others. According to Dietzen, Zimbra scales from 50-seat SMB deployments all the way to million-user deployments for providers of hosted services.

Dietzen says that one dual-CPU server should be enough to support up to 50,000 concurrent active Web users. Zimbra runs on Linux or Mac OS X, and supports end users on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, but the Zimbra server doesn't do Windows, which has been a small stumbling block for customers.

At the moment, deploying Zimbra requires a little more Linux know-how than some prospective users might like -- particularly those in the SMB market. Dietzen says the company has gotten some requests for a Windows version of Zimbra, but it plans to offer Zimbra appliances instead. He says that the company has no interest in shipping hardware, but it would like to offer an appliance version of Zimbra "for customers who don't have Linux skills and don't love managing Windows systems."

Despite big customer wins, Dietzen says that "clearly, we have to continue to win a bunch more deployments" to be considered competitive with Microsoft Exchange. Right now, Dietzen says that Zimbra has about 200 paying customers, and he says he has no idea how many organizations are using Zimbra's open source edition -- but estimates that there are thousands of open source Zimbra deployments.

Dietzen admits that Zimbra is a bit weak when it comes to Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA compliance features. He says that Zimbra offers most of the features that organizations would need, but that Zimbra lacks the third-party plugins that are available for Exchange and other, better-established, messaging solutions.

Though Zimbra is available as open source, Dietzen says that most Zimbra development is still done in-house. The company started Zimbra development behind closed doors, which Dietzen says was to "build a critical mass of code" so that the community would be interested in working on Zimbra. At this point, he says the development model is "somewhere between" community-driven projects like the Linux kernel and Apache, and company-driven projects like MySQL.

The bulk of Zimbra development is still carried by Zimbra's developers, but Dietzen says that the company has worked hard to "provide multiple on-ramps" for developers. Dietzen notes that the active development community around Zimbra is larger than Zimbra's own development team. He credits the Zimbra community with localizations for the software, themes, and the contribution of Zimlets that add functionality to the suite.

Whether Zimbra will be able to steal a significant slice of the pie from Exchange is up in the air, but it would seem that the company is establishing a solid foothold.


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