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Scott Dietzen, President, CTO, Zimbra

Scott DietzenTo many, AJAX and open source are just words. For Zimbra they're its business.

The collaboration space has long been dominated by proprietary vendor offerings, including IBM's Lotus Notes, Novell GroupWise and Microsoft's Exchange.

Zimbra, which emerged from stealth mode earlier this year, offers a slick AJAX-powered open source alternative. The Zimbra Collaboration Suite (ZCS) is made up of a collaboration server and a browser-based AJAX client, which will run on all major browsers.

But Zimbra isn't just a user of AJAX technology; it's also an innovator, as well.

AJAX Linking and Embedding (ALE) is a Zimbra-developed specification that is the AJAX equivalent of Microsoft's OLE.

Scott Dietzen, Zimbra president and CTO, spoke with internetnews.com about the open source model, why Zimbra doesn't open source its Microsoft Outlook connector technology and how he expects to compete.

Q: Is having a closed stealth mode development, as Zimbra did in the beginning, and then opening it up a good way to go for a startup?

Ultimately if you're entering a very competitive space, there is a benefit to stealth mode, even for an open source company.

The problem is until you get to a critical mass of innovation that looks credible and exciting. If you're out too early, the competition gets to see what you're up to in advance. You're more at risk and you're going to telegraph your innovations long before you're in a position to deliver solutions to the market, and you're just going to get poached.

I think it does still behoove you to have some period of stealth mode to get to critical mass.

I do think Zimbra was best served by having two years of stealth and then opening it up, so far at least we've been very gratified with the community acceptance.

Q: Beyond just having an open-sourced licensed version of Zimbra, what actually makes Zimbra open source? Does the community actually participate in development? Are the non-Zimbra employees committers to the project?

We do have a CVS tree that is updated daily. We are indeed taking external contributions, though we don't have external committers.

External contributions are made by people submitting things through our forums. An example is that someone recently submitted all the AJAX code changes we need to run inside the Opera browser.

The community is a bit over 3,000 members that are active in our forums. We've gotten many bug fixes. That's probably the biggest thing we've accepted through the community. Perhaps of highest value are the dozen language translations that we've received from community members.

We're moving to a model where we'll allow for viral sharing of our Zimlet mashups and have a directory that measures popularity, not unlike what Apple does for its widgets.

Any external committers that we allow, we haven't chosen to designate anyone yet, but external committers do have to assign IP [intellectual property] in such a way that we can guarantee that Zimbra users will have unencumbered IP. Ever since the SCO debacle, this has been an issue in open source.

Q: Zimbra is currently licensed under an MPL {Mozilla Public License} variant. Will the GPL version 3 in any way affect Zimbra and the way it is licensed or developed?

We do include GPL-licensed technologies within Zimbra. There are more than 40 open source projects in Zimbra; I think six or eight of the technologies are Apache-licensed now.

But as the projects that we incorporate do move to GPL version 3, we have to ensure that both we and ultimately the project authors are comfortable with the way we are using their technologies within Zimbra.

We have to make sure that we're not incurring an infection of the GPL provisions and having to license Zimbra under GPL 3.

At this point we don't want to necessarily make the requirement that anyone that wants to ship a value-added work of Zimbra has to open source Zimlets that they may want to go off and craft.

We have some interest from Microsoft competitors that have technologies and operating systems that would have interest in potentially bundling Zimbra with boxes or software packages in order to increase their value footprint.

To put them under a requirement that they have to open source their Zimlets in order to consider such a thing we ultimately didn't feel was in our interest or community's interest.

There are companies that feel they are in a religious war with commercial or proprietary software. While we are staunch advocates of open source, most of our customers are running hybrid environments, mixes of open source and proprietary software. I don't see that changing.

I think there is a certain class of software that it makes sense to open source when you have some competitive advantage in.

Q: Zimbra's Outlook Connector, a technology that enables functionality for Outlook users, is not open source. It's only part of the paid edition. Why is it proprietary, and is it an issue for you?

It's always an issue. The challenge as you are an open source vendor shimmying up to proprietary software is there are points at which it may not make intellectual property sense to open source what you are doing. Doing so might set you up for problems done the road.

Outlook is of course not an open source technology, and as we run inside of Outlook using the MAPI provider interface that Microsoft surfaces, there are things that we have to do that are very specific in what Outlook expects and requires.

We built perhaps the second best MAPI team in the world after Microsoft to be able to do this successfully, but our making a decision to open source all that technology opens us up to concerns that we may be disclosing information that Microsoft or others might feel is not appropriate to be open source.

My read of the open source community is that there is an expectation that features that are relevant to larger businesses or that are particularly commercial in interest, there is less of an onus generally that those need to be open source.

I would say on the Outlook Connector that most of the open source developers are not interested in going off and becoming MAPI gear heads. The requests that we get around open sourcing it tend to be more people that would rather not participate in the Zimbra network than actually want to go in and contribute to it.

Q: The collaboration business is very competitive with solutions from Novell, IBM, Scalix, OpenExchange and of course Microsoft. Do you compete against all of them or is just biting off the Microsoft Exchange business enough?

It's a really big market. Exchange grew from I think $1 billion to $1.5 billion just over the last 12 months in terms of revenues. If you take the macro pictures at least for businesses, Exchange is the technology that is doing well at the expense of most of the other players.

There are some technologies that would argue are no longer acquiring lots of new customers.

I would put Novell Groupwise, Lotus Domino and Oracle's Collaboration suite into that category that have an install base but aren't necessarily today being viewed as competitive with Microsoft Exchange.

I think there is also a big market of carriers, operators and ISPs that want to offer calendaring and e-mail to their customers. The opportunity for Zimbra is not just to talk to businesses and governments, but to also work with service providers that want to offer services like Zimbra to their customers.

Microsoft is guaranteed in this space. They have such a strong position in the market and they are continuing to grow really well.

The optimistic scenario for Zimbra is that we can be the leading open source alternative, but there are a lot of other entries in this space. I think that it's going to be innovation more than anything else that will shake this market out.

The open source community in particular wants the technology to be exciting. Our job on the business side of Zimbra is to make sure we don't get in the way of allowing the technology to go as far as it can go.