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Zimbra Takes Aim at Enterprise Collaboration

The enterprise collaboration market got a bit more competitive today with the release of the open source Zimbra collaboration and messaging server.

Zimbra, which has been in beta use for over a year has now officially released its' flagship product Zimbra Collaboration Suite 3.0 (ZCS) and made it generally available. Though Zimbra will work from a client point of view on Microsoft Windows desktops, it is not currently available for Windows Servers and will not challenge Microsoft Exchange directly on Windows. If an enterprise is looking to provide additional functionality beyond Exchange or to migrate to a Linux server though, the Zimbra technology may well be an attractive one.

Zimbra is a convergence of open source, Web Services and AJAX technologies. There are two fundamental components to the Zimbra solution, the collaboration server and the browser based AJAX client which will run on all major browsers.

Integrated search and anti-spam/anti-virus are core features of ZCS 3.0. RSS and Atom syndication enables users to not only subscribe to feeds but to publish their mailbox content whether it be email folders, contacts or calendar via RSS as well. On the calendaring side of things, ZCS 3.0 can import or export calendars via the iCal standard.

Web Services integration is also a key part of ZCS 3.0. Baked in capabilities include the ability to recognize map addresses in emails and pull up the associated map via the Yahoo maps API. Phone number recognition within ZCS, is integrated with Skype and other VoIP and softphone services to enable click to call functionality.

At the heart of ZCS's extensibility and Web Services feature set is something that Zimbra calls, "Zimlets". Zimbra defines Zimlets as a mechanism for integrating the Zimbra Collaboration Suite (ZCS) with third party information systems and content.

Scott Dietzen, president and CTO, Zimbra explained that Zimbra has been in alpha and beta for more than year with the first customers touching the technology in late 2004. It started off as mostly messaging no calendaring and no Zimlets.

"Open source community and customer feedback reinforced the AJAX model and were instrumental in getting us to support iCal, RSS and Atom, and especially around Zimlets," Dietzen told internetnews.com.

Zimlets are a key component of how Zimbra encourages community contributions and grow its functionality without breaking anything within Zimbra.

"What we've tried to accomplish with Zimlet and our AJAX toolkit is to make it a lot easier for people to develop add-ons that increase Zimbra's reach and value without them having to go in and make internal changes," Dietzen said.

Being open source has helped Zimbra to grow its technology and its user base, but it has also been the cause of some limited concern as well. Dietzen noted that in the beginning Zimbra received a "handful of concerns" about intellectual property related issues. Zimbra has since moved to allay end user concerns and provide assurances by sharing its intellectual property contribution agreement.

"As a result of SCO, enterprises are bit more aware and wanting to check to make sure that their open source technology providers are doing their homework to protect IP and make sure they can provide squeaky clean IP," Dietzen commented.

Though on the client side ZCS will work in an Windows based browser, there is currenty no Windows Server distribution publicly available. The reason is quite simple: Exchange.

"I think that the Exchange offering on Windows Server is the strongest player in the market," Dietzen said. "For now we want to co-opt the windows client and active directory but for people committed to windows server for the most part I think they are already on Exchange."

"And that's a tougher decision to unroll then some of the other messaging and collaboration technologies that don't have calendaring and some of the other modern features."

That said though, whether an enterprise has already deployed Exchange or even IBM/Lotus Domino or Novell Groupwise, Dietzen argues that Zimbra can still add value with its AJAX extensions and web collaboration model. Zimbra is part of the IBM backed Open AJAX project which recently got underway to help promote AJAX developments and deployment.

"Our opportunity is to complement the infrastructure that is already there whether that's Exchange or Domino and then providing a web environment for extending the reach of services out to the mobile workforce," he said.

ZCS 3.0 is available in both the freely available open source and a fee based Network Edition as well. Based on the use case so far though, Dietzen noted that north of 85 percent are choosing the open source version and it's impossible to tell how many of those are converting to paid users at this point. Zimbra Network adds support and features like clustering, fault tolerance and disaster recovery that are not in the open source release.

"I think in the open source world, you develop as much value as you can you throw it over the fence and anecdotally collect feedback through your forums and defect reports that people submit," Dietzen explained. "Ultimately in our case we think we have some significant enterprise oriented features that are going to drive the more business critical customers to be inclined to want to purchase the Zimbra Network."