The Zing in Zimbra

Rael and I had our first meeting of Web 2.0 with the folks from Zimbra. We’d seen them a month or so ago, and I’ve been speaking to them through the year, but it was good to catch up. In the last month they’ve been at the center of blog and Slashdot stories, and they’ve seen huge uptake. Here’s the story you’re not reading about: Zimbra is much more than an Ajax mail client.

The Ajax webmail client is slick and featureful, but it’s really just a demo of their underlying server system. The server platform is the Microsoft Exchange killer we’ve all wanted. There’s an ocean of people who want the Exchange feature set without the Exchange nightmares: administration, performance, and security. The folks at Zimbra have released it as open source, not just the Ajax client and the toolkit used to build it, but the server as well. Their tests show 2-3x performance over Exchange with the same workload, and they have drop-in compatibility with Outlook and other Exchange-built clients.

For administrators, the idea of Exchange without Exchange is sexy. You can do all the group calendaring and meeting management that Exchange provides, without needing a tricked-out Windows box grinding away on the backend. You don’t even need Windows clients–the Ajax client means anyone can use it. They are actively building multiple device support, including a Blackberry client (you should see how Rael perks up every time they discuss how that’s coming along–it’s so cute!).

I talked to them about security and I like what I hear. It’s all Java, so the buffer overflow issue is gone. They decode attachments on the server and the administrator can control which attachments make it to the browser. Yes, you can even view Word files as HTML. It’s centralizing a lot of the security controls to where the antispam antivirus software is a known quantity. Very nice. And (thanks to OpenSSL) all their communication between server and client happens over encrypted channels.

The Zimbra server ties together Postfix, MySQL, OpenLDAP, Tomcat, and more, building an integrated platform out of what used to be a patchy chaotic mix of protocols, libraries, and file formats. Anyone who’s ever poked at the UW IMAP server or tried to decode a MIME attachment knows what a misery it can be. I’m most psyched about the promise of a well thought-out set of email and calendar APIs that I can develop against. If I never have to speak IMAP again, I’ll be a happy man.

There was more, a lot more, that we talked about. For example, I was pleased to learn that the forums have taken on a life of their own: there are people answering hard technical questions who aren’t Zimbra employees. This is a critical milestone in every attempt to build a community around a product, and I’m glad to see they reached it so quickly. It’s a sign that other people see the same promise for Zimbra that we do.