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Getting Connected: The Evolution of Linux and Windows E-Mail Integration - page 2

Linux Alternatives In an Exchange Environment

  • March 22, 2002
  • By Bill von Hagen

Based in Boston, MA, Ximian provides open source desktop technology, applications, support and services for Linux and UNIX. Ximian GNOME (GNU Object Model Environment) extends the work of the open source GNOME project, provides GNOME-based applications such as Evolution, and also provides sophisticated software delivery and update services. Ximian is also deeply involved in the Mono Project, a community initiative to inflict an open source, Linux-based version of the Microsoft.NET development platform on the Linux community.

Evolution is a free, open source mail client for Linux systems that uses the GNOME infrastructure to provide a powerful and friendly user interface. On the surface, Evolution looks surprisingly like Outlook, which can be frightening to long-time Linux fans but is a comfort to anyone moving to a Linux environment from a Windows or Mac box.

Out-of-the-box (perhaps "out of the download" would be more appropriate), Evolution is easily configured to communicate with POP or IMAP mailers. Evolution provides a Shortcuts bar at the left of its main dialog that is filled with icons that give easy access to its major subsystems - the Inbox for email, a calendar for scheduling, a task list, and a contacts database. Evolution's mail subsystem is a full-featured drag and drop mailer featuring hierarchical folder for filing or losing mail. However nice this is, Evolution is just yet another mailer until you examine the other subsystems, most specifically the range of support for online calendaring and scheduling that Evolution provides.

Once installed, Evolution can initiate meeting requests and subsequent meeting updates, which interoperate seamlessly with other Evolution users. Evolution uses the open iCalendar (Internet Calendaring) data format and the iTIP (iCalendar Transport-Independent Interoperability Protocol) language for exchanging calendaring messages. Both of these are open standards that were created by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

Evolution can automatically receive and correctly process meeting requests received from Microsoft Outlook clients, but cannot always correctly respond to such requests. This is because Microsoft Exchange uses a combination of the MAPI (Microsoft's Messaging Application Programming Interface) and WebDAV (Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning) interfaces to exchange calendar and scheduling information. Outlook supports iCalendar and iTIP to some extent, enabling Evolution users to initiate meeting requests that Outlook users can respond to.

To provide complete compatibility with Microsoft Exchange 2000 servers, you will soon be able to purchase an Evolution extension from Ximian known as the Ximian Connector. The Ximian Connector is the flip side of Bynari's InsightConnector, focusing on guaranteeing compatibility between the free Linux Evolution mailer and Exchange 2000 servers rather than providing compatibility between a Windows Outlook mail client and a free mailer. Copies of Ximian Connector are $69 per client, with price breaks in quantities of 10, 25, and so on. Ximian Connector will be available soon for Linux distributions such as Red Hat, Mandrake, SuSE, and Debian.

After installing a beta of the Ximian Connector, I became a full-fledged member of the my employer's calendaring community. My responses to meeting requests initiated by Outlook users worked correctly and consistently. Best of all, installation was trivial - right-clicking on the license that I received via email gave me the option to install the Connector license, which worked flawlessly.

The cost savings of Linux on the server side are fairly obvious nowadays, but mailers such as Ximian that address business requirements at the desktop level provide a new set of potential cost savings and simplified infrastructure. Even in Linux shops, many technical personnel who do their day-to-day work on Linux systems need to keep a Windows machine around in order to receive and send email that interoperates in the business environment. This is expensive any way that you look at it - hardware-wise, support and maintenance-wise, Windows-licensing-wise, and more.

Microsoft pioneered online scheduling via email, the visibility of personal calendars through shared folders, and many similar concepts that are business staples today. However, as Linux itself shows, open alternative can help cut costs and often provide superior solutions to their proprietary forefathers.

Microsoft's Exchange mail server is expensive, requires per-client licenses, and has hidden costs such as the need to buy Windows licenses for all Exchange clients, regardless of whether they are running on a Windows system. As more powerful mail clients such as Evolution appear, using open standards to support business needs such as online calendars and scheduling, the Exchange mail server may eventually find one more adjective being applied with increasing frequency - unnecessary. Until then, the combination of the Ximian Connector and the Evolution mailer provide an attractive, cost-effective alternative to multi-machine desktops.

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