Practically Replacing Microsoft Exchange Server - A 3 Part Series - 1 of 3

Part 1 of 3: Workgroup/Corporate Collaboration - The Phantom Menace

For years, workgroups and corporate environments have needed a solution that combined a mailsystem with collaborative tools, like a calendar and shared contacts. For years, this solution was only provided by Microsoft in the form of Microsoft Exchange. For years, Microsoft Exchange was bar-none the best tool for this job. It supported all the features major enterprises requested, it supported all mobile devices and had an ecosystem of products and support around it that simply made it better than all the alternatives. The only problem is, Exchange is also a terrible burden. As with most Microsoft products, it’s fragile and impossible to cleanly back up and restore in the event of a disaster. As a result, it costs every organization that uses it a tremendous amount of money, and carries with it the potential of costing even more money when (not if) something goes wrong. Most organizations have stooped to multi-level replication of live data to avoid all but the remotest possibility of failure, knowing that such failure would likely be permanent. No longer.

Criteria - What Do We Need In a Collab Suite? - The Basics

Many traditionalists will say that a mailsystem should simply deliver mail, and that features like calendaring can be added with ad-hoc plugins for small-time web applications like SquirrelMail or Horde. The rationale will continue that web based applications are the future anyway, ignoring the fact that the rising prevalence of web applications is simply due to the refusal of software makers to come together on interoperable standards. But all this is irrelevant - a mailsystem was fine in the beginning, but a real collaboration system in which users can share not only messages but information about the time they’re spending is an absolute necessity in the modern workplace. So, what does Exchange do better than the rest, specifically? Shared Folders Exchange users can share their mail folders with each other. They can attach to another user’s shared folder, and they can view and edit (if they have permission) the contents of public folders. Shared Calendars In addition to maintaining an events calendar, Exchange users can view the calendars of other users on the system. They can, if they have permission, add or edit appointments in calendars belonging to others. When scheduling an appointment including others as attendees, they can see what times are best for those others in a timetable showing their ‘free/busy’ time. Contact Lists Exchange users are able to maintain a list of favorite contacts of their own, and can always refer to the GAL, the global address list. This list contains the contact info for everyone in their organization. The 3 items above are basic criteria. Without these most basic capabilities, nothing can be considered an Exchange alternative.

Criteria - Other Requirements

Client Software Compatibility

Under Windows, Microsoft Outlook is the de-facto standard groupware client, and millions of knowledge workers, secretaries and other employees around the world know how to use it. If it doesn’t work with Outlook, that’s already a showstopper. Any possible alternative to Exchange Server must support this client. Under MacOS X, Microsoft Entourage is a fairly decent option. It’s not as feature-rich as Outlook, but it takes all other collaboration software on the Mac to school when it comes to calendar and folder sharing, free/busy, and global address lists (GAL). It’s the official Microsoft client for Mac. Not necessary to support, but nice-to-have. Under Linux, Novell Evolution provides a semi-capable method of accessing Exchange sometimes if it’s in the mood for it. But this is the way of all things on the Linux desktop. Once again, Mac and Linux client support is nice, but Outlook is absolutely the clincher. If it doesn’t do Outlook, the outlook for adoption isn’t so good. Mobile Devices Microsoft Exchange is able to sync its e-mail, calendaring and contacts as well as provide GAL search capabilities to all the major smartphones:

  • iPhone
  • Windows Mobile
  • PalmOS
  • BlackBerry

This device support is notable because it means there’s an entire ecosystem of software and hardware that works with Exchange Server. Any possible alternative to Exchange has to plug into as much of this ecosystem as possible.

Support for Existing IT Infrastructure

On the IT admin side of things, a replacement for Exchange server needs to support the existing network/systems that are in place. In the vast majority of cases this is going to be a Windows network backed by an Active Directory, sync servers for BlackBerry devices, backup systems and others. Because IT admins have a large amount of say when it comes to the feasibility of adopting something new, the amount of weight placed on these areas is going to make a huge difference.

And More

This is a simple, condensed list of the absolute basics needed when evaluating a replacement for Exchange. Many organizations will have other specific criteria and as such will need to do their homework when researching viable options. Alternatives Are Appearing - A New Hope As mentioned and as is the purpose of this series, there are now replacements for Exchange Server - 2 of them, and both of these have appeared on the scene within the last 6 months. Though both have existed for longer, their latest versions now sport a featureset rich enough for them to have the “right stuff”, and I consider both to be drop-in replacements based on the above criteria in a large number of cases. Stay tuned for part 2, which will cover the first of these: Zimbra Collaboration Suite.