A free Exchange Replacement that works

For years the de-facto groupware suite was Microsoft Exchange and Outlook. Well as someone who prefers to not use Microsoft products if I can avoid it this has been somewhat of a problem. Sure there have been some projects that replaced some of the functionality of Exchange (Like Zimbra)  but there have always been problems. Things just never seemed to work quite right. That is until I tried Zarafa. Zarafa is an Exchange replacement that runs on Linux. Like a lot of recent Open Source projects the company responsible for Zarafa as made available both a Community (Read “free as in beer and speech”) version that has a restriction of 3 connected mapi (Outlook) clients and a paid version that you can pay for per client access license.

The key features of Zarafa are

  1. Ajax based web interface (This is as close to Outlook in a web browser as I’ve ever seen)
  2. Outlook support (versions 2000 to 2007)
  3. Mobile support (Push email to Activesync devices (Windows Mobile or iPhone) via Z-Push
  4. Active Directory/LDAP integration
  5. POP3/IMAP support
  6. MySQL support
  7. Single Sign on support
  8. Brick Level Backup (not in the community version)

So I decided to install Zarafa on my Ubuntu server the actual install of the software packages was fairly easy. And as I work with mail servers on a daily basis I didn’t find it too difficult to integrate Zarafa into my existing Postfix install. However I did find myself running into a few roadblocks when I went to find the documentation for some features. Yes there are man files for the key administration command and yes there are some documents online for doing specific things with Zarafa but I was disturbed to find there was no real documentation for Zarafa as a whole (at least as far as I could find. Please correct me if I’m wrong). I was completely unable to get it working in the “Hosted” configuration which is supposed to allow you to setup multiple companies to segregate global address lists and public folders.

Web interface

Web interface

On to the good. I was very impressed with the Web interface. I’ve done some work with Exchange servers and have always been envious of the Outlook Web access interface that Windows users get in Internet Explorer. The ajax based interface on Zarafa does an excellent job of simulating the Outlook interface and does it equally well in Safari and Firefox going as far as to support drag and drop of items like messages and notes. The next big feature I wanted to try out was the ActiveSync support so I installed Z-Push which is as easy as moving a folder into your web root and creating an alias in Apache. It was just as easy to setup my email account on my iPhone 3G as is was with a real Exchange server with the caveat of having to turn off SSL on the iPhone. Emails were pushed to my phone just as quickly as they are with a real Exchange server.

One feature I didn’t have the time to get setup and try was the iCalendar support. Supposedly you can configure Zarafa to act as an iCalendar server which should allow me to sync the calendar with iCal.

So if you’re running a mail server and want to add some of the Exchange features like shared Calendars, Address books and push email without the lisencing cost of an Exchange server give Zarafa a try.

*Note that Zarafa claims that they should have BES (Blackberry Enterprise Server) support by December of this year.

As always if you have any questions, comments or suggestions please post them in the comments section below.

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