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Bynari Compatability: Linux Software Vendor Provides Exchange Emulation

Examining the Bynari InsightConnector Plug-In

  • March 15, 2002
  • By Bill von Hagen

Like it or not, Windows dominates the IT infrastructure for most of corporate America. This is not only because it provides the applications that most people are familar with, but more importantly because it serves as the lingua franca for corporate communication and data exchange. Web developers and EDI fanatics may view XML as the ultimate in document and data exchange, but for Joe VP, interoperability means documents in Word format, numeric data in Excel format, and - most importantly - email, scheduling, and corporate calendaring done using Microsoft Outlook, which requires a Microsoft Exchange server.

Bynari software's new InsightConnector is a Windows-side utility that does the magic necessary to enable any IMAP4 (Internet Mail Access Protocol, Version 4) mail server to look and work like an Exchange mail server, supporting Outlook email, calendaring, scheduling, and related message traffic. The deep dark secret of Outlook calendaring is that it's all done using specially formatted email messages under the covers.

InsightConnector is a Microsoft Outlook plug-in, developed using Microsoft's own Exchange SDK, that provides a seamless interface to IMAP4 mail servers with ACL (Access Control List) support. Once you install the InsightConnector and supply information about your IMAP server, a new Outlook toolbar provides access to your IMAP folders, which look just like Exchange folders. Scheduling meetings, sharing your calendar with other users, and all of the standard features that corporate Outlook users expect "just plain work."

It would ordinarily be odd to read about a Windows-side utility in LinuxPlanet until you think about the implications of a utility that enables drop-in use of an IMAP server as a replacement for a Microsoft Exchange mail server. Microsoft provides Outlook Express as a basic free mail client with every Internet Explorer download, and bundles Outlook itself (which adds groupware features like calendaring and scheduling) with packages like Microsoft Office.

For all intents and purposes, either version of Outlook is free - but the Microsoft Exchange mail server, which is most definitely not free, is required (until now) in order to use Outlook's calendaring features. An additional, per-client licensing fee, is just icing on the expensive Microsoft cake.

Using the Exchange server in a corporate IT environment also has "hidden" costs, such as mandatory and expensive upgrades for the Exchange server itself. These expenses are often followed by incompatibilities between different versions of Outlook and Exchange that require Outlook and Outlook Express upgrades, which often translate into mandatory upgrades from one version of Windows to another. If you hear a huge flushing noise behind you, that may be the sound of your IT budget going down the tubes.

Linux is a robust server environment, most often and rightly touted as a high-powered budget saver for hosting mail servers, web servers, and other parts of your IT infrastructure. Religious arguments aside, all of the Linux mailers are stable, high-power replacements for commercial mail servers such as Exchange except for one thing - they don't support Outlook/Exchange scheduling, calendars, and shared folders, which makes them unacceptable to many business users.

Ironically, even many Linux-oriented companies find themselves in the awkward situation where executive and administrative personnel use Windows machines simply because are familiar with Outlook and depend on scheduling and sharing capabilities that are only provided by the Exchange server. Bynari's InsightConnector removes the most expensive part of this equation - the Exchange server and associated per client licenses. At $39 per client, InsightConnector licenses and the use of a free Linux IMAP mail server can save your company over $50 per client, with greater savings for bulk client purchases. Sound interesting?

In addition to the cost savings made possible by using a Linux mail server, InsightConnector's reliance on an IMAP mail server environment can also provide operational, financial, and time savings in business use. Most of us are familiar with mail servers that use the POP (Post Office Protocol) or POP3 (Version 3) protocols, but less so with IMAP (Internet Mail Access Protocol) servers. The core difference between these two protocols is where your mail is stored.

By default, POP servers download mail to clients and don't preserve it on the server unless specially instructed to do so. IMAP servers store mail on the server, and only download header information to clients by default - you actually download the messages by request only. POP is therefore the favorite protocol of ISPs everywhere, since client-side message storage reduces the disk space requirements for POP servers. IMAP is actually superior in most cases - both for road warriors, who don't incur the time required to download entire messages unless they actually need them, and for system administrators, who can easily back up an IMAP mail server and provide some mail restoration options for users whose laptops burst into flames.

Bynari is a Dallas, Texas based Linux company that, among other things, has been in the Linux email client (InsightClient) and server (InsightServer, formerly known as TradeXCH) business for years. Their InsightServer is an groupware mail environment that uses Open Source components such as the Exim MTA (Mail Transfer Agent), the Cyrus IMAP system. the OpenLDAP directory service, and others to comprise an Exchange-compatible environment.

Without InsightConnector, InsightServer is an Exchange-comapatible environment with Addressbook lookups, shared folders, and a standard mailbox structure. In many ways, though with a longer track record, InsightServer is very similar to Caldera's Volution mail server, both in terms of the Open Source components that it uses and the capabilities that it provides. Prior to the appearance of InsightConnector, the big drawback of both of these systems as a complete replacement for Exchange servers was their lack of support for scheduling and calendaring.

You can actually use InsightConnector with either of these Linux mail servers, but I believe in supporting the people who do the true breakthrough work - which would be Bynari in this case. If you don't have an IMAP4 server, Bynari even offers a somewhat free, though somewhat stripped-down, version of their InsightServer product for free download from their Web site. (Registration required.)

One of the classic complaints made about Microsoft is the "embrace/extend/extinguish" paradigm, where they first adopt open protocols, then extend them to provide functionality that rules out any software solution other than their own. Until InsightConnector, the somewhat incestuous relationship between Outlook and Exchange has been a shining example of a Microsoft-specific feature set that keeps users and companies chained to their Windows systems. Thanks to the Exchange compatibility layer that InsightConnector provides for IMAP4 mailers, this is not the case any longer.

Bynari also provides a totally free email client, known as InsightClient, which will soon provide calendaring and scheduling features. Ours will simply be a more powerful, flexible, and inexpensive world when Windows and Linux desktop users can transparently schedule meetings, share their calendars, and do it all without paying the monetary and administrative costs associated with the Exchange mail server.

Let's give Microsoft credit for introducing some great groupware features in Outlook's scheduling and calendaring capabilities. Next, buy a copy of InsightConnector, and give Bynari credit for making these capabilities truly available to everyone, inexpensively.

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