Oct 5

Nat Torkington

Nat Torkington

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.

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Comments: 24

  pwb [10.05.05 05:22 PM]

Why does Zimbra downplay the server so much? It's tough to figure out from the Zimbra web site that it offers an Exchange replacement. Calling it a "Collaboration Suite" induces a slight cringe. How does it stack up to Scalix which seems more focused on the server (as you would think would be necessary to compete with Exchange)?

  pwb [10.05.05 05:22 PM]

Why does Zimbra downplay the server so much? It's tough to figure out from the Zimbra web site that it offers an Exchange replacement. Calling it a "Collaboration Suite" induces a slight cringe. How does it stack up to Scalix which seems more focused on the server (as you would think would be necessary to compete with Exchange)?

  cg [10.05.05 06:11 PM]

Because Zimbra is far away from being an Exchange replacement. They do not offer native Outlook (MAPI) connectivity.

  eric [10.06.05 01:01 PM]

Just to clarify, Zimbra does indeed offer a MAPI service provider so you can run Outlook clients against the Zimbra server. Given the marvelousness of the AJAX UI, I'm not sure you'de really need/want Outlook except for disconnected (airplane) use.

  cg [10.06.05 10:31 PM]

Link please (to the MAPI connector)?

  mbaldwin [10.07.05 11:50 PM]

It's one thing to have MAPI support; however, does it also support RPC-HTTPS, which, I believe, was Microsoft's answer to the whole MAPI being insecure issue? But, after checking out their online demo, I would have to agree: Why bother with having the headaches of a client or the added license cost when you have such a rich web application?


  cg [10.11.05 12:52 PM]

Lots of reasons really, but most importantly the absence of mailbox caching/offline mode in a web-client.

  KevinH [10.12.05 03:23 AM]

We will be providing a MAPI provider. It's in internal beta today, and we plan to release an evaluation of it in the coming monthes. We use SOAP/XML over SSL so it's just as secure as RPC-HTTPS when in Exchange mode. This allows you to use Outlook out of the office without VPN.



  nate [10.16.05 07:30 AM]

i am looking to develop an application with zimbra. are there any programmers for hire on a contract basis to help set up a zimbra server and help integrate it with other applications?

  rengolin [11.08.05 04:52 PM]

-- pwb wrote:
> Why does Zimbra downplay the server so much?

Pwb, have you looked Zimbra's database scheme ? Probably no, so that's why you've asked that. It have some serious flaws, that will bring *any* server down with a relatively small number of concurrent users (like 10 or 20).

I can name two main problems: it creates one MySQL database for each user and it store *all* information inside a single table, named mailitem, which have a TEXT field with a CSV inside as it's content.

This is, for me at last, the state of art of the dumbest relational design I've ever saw in my life. If Zimbra wants to be what all are talking about, a replacement to Outlok, they must change it now or the technical community will laugh out very loud of it and drop them from considering as a webmail in the future.

Btw, if someone have contact with that guys please ask them to change it, we've tryied but they were very bold.


  John [11.11.05 07:52 AM]

If you are looking for a Microsoft Exchange replacement, take a look at Scalix instead...

  tim [11.14.05 11:26 PM]

rengolin, your post above only serves to show that you don't understand MySQL internals, that you haven't really read the Zimbra code very well, and that you've really not done any real testing or evaluation.

Let me clear a few things up for you:

0) Even though you make a pseudo-exact claim of "10 or 20" users, it is clear you aren't basing this on any actual testing...I have actually done performance testing and I can say that the server scales extremely well under a wide variety of performance tests.

1) Separating users into databases is NOT a bad thing for a mailserver. Since a mailserver rarely if ever needs to do a SELECT across multiple user's data, there is little or no reason to store multiple users' data in a single table...and there are huge benefits such as smaller indexes and fewer constraints necessary in common queries, that come from having data spread out into multiple tables (tables and databases are the same to MySQL in this case).

2) Your "mailitem with CSV" comment is simply not true. There is a metadata column which stores some unstructured nonsearchable data (which I can only assume is what you're refering to) but this holds only a small amount of data, not "*all* information" in any stretch of the word.

...Hey, I'm all for taking a critical look at things: Zimbra is certainly not perfect -- but if you're going to be critical of it, lets at least base the criticism on some actual facts.

  Ben [05.18.06 08:49 PM]

Take a look at another alternative to Zimbra - It's called @Mail - - The product is a lot more mature, first developed in '98 - It has a much cleaner Ajax interface, and IMHO just as good as Zimbra.

  Servaas [05.24.06 12:48 AM]

It is my belief that software like Evolution or Outlook offers far too much options, therefore copying it's functionality is pointless unless you want to grab their customers. Zimbra could have been a beautiful functional platform - not necessarily a copy of existing 'overkill' software. The effort is appreciated though, this road just needs paving.

  iggy [08.02.06 06:27 PM]

Servaas- Zimbra does not copy the functionality of Evolution or Outlook, it makes it better. Evolution and Outlook are perfect examples of overkill, heavyweight software prone to user error and client side mangling. However, email, contact management, and calendaring are among the most common functions driving the digital lives of the people from homemaker to CEO. Zimbra takes out the fluff and offers an excellent tool for these functions plus full support for standard protocols like IMAP and POP3. Everyone is a winner.

  Not Impressed [11.22.06 10:32 AM]

I just installed it. It's missing some major groupware features like tasks and document storage. Plus for all the hype about AJAX you'd think they'd get it right like Google does. The UI was way too slow. My testers were complaining from day one. I guess I'll check out Open-Xchange or Scalix.

  ig [12.15.06 12:09 PM]

If you're not impressed with Zimbra, then what you really want to check out is Citadel - - it's a true open source project, and it's built from the ground up as a single system, not a bunch of existing stuff (postfix, etc.) clumsily lashed together with a slow Java UI on top like Zimbra is. Citadel does AJAX webmail plus calendaring, tasks, notes, and a bunch of other cool stuff. Give it a try.

  asdferrty [01.11.07 08:27 AM]

Not Open Source --

We had deployed Zimbra 4.0.3 Open Source edition on Ubuntu — everything was working fine until we upgraded to 4.0.5 and certain key parts stopped working. We tried to post to the “forums” and got no response to a pretty critical problem, so in order to fix this problem, we called Zimbra sales to inquire about getting *ANY* kind of support and $PAY$ for it since we were in a bind….

The answer we got was very very very interesting - the sales guy told me that Zimbra Open Source edition should *NOT* be run in production - only Network Edition and above. This was shocking to hear from “the leader in open source messaging and collaboration” - clearly that statement is not true. Zimbra is no better than M$ apparently. The only version they feel is “production” is the pay-for versions. And the pricing from Zimbra is worse than if we went with a hosted license from Microsoft for Hosted Exchange. So in order to get any kind of support, you fork over $$$$ to get onto the Network edition (which only runs on pay-for OS, Red Hat, SUSE, OS-X, not OS’s like Ubuntu…) The sales guy told me that open source is free, so what should I expect?

Answer: If you call yourself an open source company, I expect you to behave like one, not like - “hey, here’s a buggy free version that we won’t even begin to support you on, no matter what, and if you want a *real* version, fork over $$$ for the program and then $$$ for support and $$$ for…..”

Support at $400 an incident? over and above what you have to pay for the network edition/hosted edition? and you don’t have a choice of OS you can run it on, except for proprietary OS’s? not gonna happen…. good luck guys, and anyone foolish enough to run the open source edition since you are walking a tight-rope with no net….

  David Jones [04.11.07 01:23 AM]

hmmmm not exactly true..... I think you're being a bit unfair although I think it would be nice to offer support on a paid basis for the free version it's true. I can see why they don't though, the network version is the one they work on, test, prove and release.

You get support incidents in with the network edition fee, so it's not $400 in addition at least, not until you've run out of free incidents.

After running the open source, then trialling the network edition, we decided to try out hosted zimbra. We tried 4 companies and decided on in the end. No setup fee, cheap per user and single mailbox friendly (so we could trial it cheaply). As for support? I don't have to care, it's the hoster's problem and I'm assuming they manage it well since we've had zero downtime.

Answer for me in a business setting therefore is hosted zimbra

  siva [06.01.07 01:44 PM]

what tools did u use to do performance testing

  Shalom [10.20.07 05:52 PM]

It was originally this post that helped to prevent our team from seriously considering Zimbra, but then we took the plunge, even though it meant losing sync'd tasks. What changed our minds? We'd been installing each version as it came out on a test machine, running CentOS, and the other options we'd tried just were not improving as fast as Zimbra. Now with version 5 due out this year, we're going to get tasks back, and document sharing to boot. We ended up going with for our test of the paid-for version (Network Professional), and while our performance is a little better having the machine in-house, the minimum license is 25-users, so we ended up doing the hosted thing for now. Although we've no complaints about the hosting, when we get big enough, we'll move to our own server again. One of the reasons we chose our host is that they can also sell us a license when we're ready to do it ourselves. Note we found at the authorized zimbra providers list, here:

  HBH [12.25.07 07:06 AM]

We ran open source Zimbra and got screwed. Stay away from open source Zimbra at all costs. If you ever need TS, it simply does not exist, even for serious bugs that are Zimbra's fault. I hope Zimbra is not an example of the future of open source.

  Andy [01.03.08 09:00 AM]

We have deployed Zimbra open source edition and some network editions at over 100 small business. We will no longer deploy Zimbra because they are not open source and their prices are more expensive than microsoft Exchange. We will be recommending MS exchange from now on until we find a true Open Source solution. It does not make sense to pay for a fake open source solution when u can pay less for a proprietary solution. The fake open source solution does not provide any benefits over proprietary exchange. Still looking for a real Open source collaboration suite.

  Chuck [04.12.08 11:27 AM]

Open source does not mean free. Open source means that the source code is available, and can be contributed to under one open-source license or another.

There has to be $$ in it somewhere, else how else can it afford to be supported? Don't complain about not getting support if you're not paying for a license and don't want to pay for support either. What value is there to your organization's email? For most organizations, quite a bit, sometimes more than their phone systems. It's not only fair to ask for compensation for developing code, and/or supporting it, but smart, because it's the reliability of that development and support on which you must rely, and really into which you're investing.

Besides not being Microsoft (!), Zimbra's primary value vs. Exchange is that it both holds all of its data in open, standards-based formats, which makes moving to (and from) it easy, lowering switching costs and increasing opportunities for integration, and also works better cross-platform than Exchange, not only supporting Outlook sync, but also Mac and Linux desktop sync. Of course it also has a kick-*** web client that has supported the iPhone beautifully since New Years 2008.

As far as being more expensive than Exchange, it's certainly possible that Zimbra can be the same or more, however, it seems in most circumstances to be materially less. The primary reason Zimbra isn't much much less than Exchange at this point is mainly because of the expertise it takes to deploy it. I expect as the Zimbra deployments grow, more people gain expertise at managing them, and the software itself becomes easier to install and manage, the price will continue to drop.

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