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Zimbra Pursues Microsoft, Novell With Revamped Software, Red Hat Pact

Zimbra Outdances Hula

  • January 29, 2007
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

Open source-based messaging and collaboration specialist Zimbra is picking up more steam in its bid to compete against Microsoft Exchange and Novell GroupWise, with the release of Zimbra Collaboration Suite (ZCS) 4.5 today and intentions to roll out a 5.0 update--plus an expanded deal with Red Hat Software--later this year.

Unlike makers of rival suites, Zimbra gears its software to the technology available during the current decade, as opposed to "messaging and collaboration as they were conceived of in the 1980s," contended Satish Dharmaraj, in a briefing for LinuxPlanet.

Running on Linux servers, Zimba's suite provides client support via Ajax for Linux, Microsoft Windows, and Apple OS X desktops.

The Silicon Valley-based start-up first launched free downloads of the open source edition of its suite in August, 2005, adding software and maintenance support in February of last year, said Dharmaraj, a Zimbra co-founder who previously led the team at Sun Microsystems responsible for Java Servlets.

Hundreds of thousands of downloads later, Zimbra now serves 1,300 customers through a mix of HSPs (hosting service providers) and on-site deployments, for a total of six million paid mailboxes.

But according to the Zimbra CEO, Zimbra doesn't target its suite at any particular markets--vertical, horizontal, or otherwise. "We're doing the opposite of most traditional business models. We don't go out and try to target insurance companies, or something. We don't even know who's downloaded our product," he told LinuxPlanet.

Instead, Dharmaraj attributes much of Zimbra's success so far to "grassroots, blogosphere" support from open source developers. "Developers love [ZCS] because it solves real problems," he maintained.

Many developers in Zimbra's open source community have written "Zimlets," or Web services connectors, between the collaboration suite and outside applications. "You can click on [a Zimlet] and connect to a voice call," he said. Other Zimlets connect users from their mailboxes to Web-based mapping, CRM (customer relationship management), and news and stock applications, for instance. Open source developers also suggest features and perform bug fixes.

Meanwhile, though, Dharmaraj acknowledges that Zimbra is also dabbling more than a little with what he calls "tops-down support" through pacts with Red Hat, Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, and almost 75 hosting providers, VARs, and other smaller companies. "They're spreading the word," he said.

In a reference partnership, for instance, Red Hat has helped Zimbra to nail down a big government contract. Red Hat also assisted Zimbra in last year's large deployment of ZCS at accounting giant H&R Block, according to Dharmaraj.

Later this year, Zimbra expects to unveil an expanded pact with Red Hat, he said. But he declined to spell out specifics at this time.

Yet he also told LinuxPlanet that Zimbra's decision to compete against Exchange and GroupWise long predated the complicated, controversial deal between Microsoft and Novell made known last November.

Dharmaraj asserted that Novell recently canceled Hula, an open source project for a collaboration and messaging environment, because ZCS is "two years ahead of Hula."

From his perspective, other rivals include IBM's Lotus Notes and the open source OpenExchange environment. "But we're distinctively different," he said. "Everyone else seemed to be essentially copying Exchange, and then putting in a connector to Outlook. We tried to come up with what a real collaborative and calendaring environment should look like."

Back in 2003, Dharmaraj and other company co-founders first started using Java to develop the software that ultimately became the Ajax-enabled ZCS. "We saw that the Web had come a long way. And after we did our first prototype, we got funding immediately," he said.

The founders named the new company Zimbra in honor of a song of the same name by the rock group Talking Heads. One of Zimbra's financial backers, Benchmark Capital, has also been a lead investor in Red Hat and MySQL. Other Zimbra funders have included Accel Partners, Redpoint Ventures, and Eric Hahn, former CTO at Netscape.

According to Dharmaraj, the current edition of Ajax, 2.0, offers a richer collaborative environment than Microsoft Outlook. Beyond including its own browser-based client environment, Zimbra's software can improve the functionality of Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird, and Apple Mail.

ZCS supports Web mash-ups, enabling end users to view their calendaring schedules by hovering over a date, for instance.

In another capability of Zimbra's software, end users can search their messages by word in text, not just by subject line or name of sender, for instance. The word-in-text search extends across more than 200 kinds of attachments, including Microsoft Word documents.

You can also set up and save searches to "virtual folders." For instance, you might establish a folder for all of the still unread mail that's come in over the past two days from Sam across the hall, or whatever other sender you choose.

Large mailboxes are available for users who want to do HSM (hierarchical storage management). Conversational threading is supported, too.

Along the way, Zimbra has also added capabilities such as customizable skins, native synchronization with mobile devices, and Zimbra Documents, a WYSIWG tool for content sharing and editing.

In ZCS 4.5, available for download starting today, Zimbra adds Ubuntu and Mandriva support to its previous support for Red Hat, rPath, and Novell SUSE Linux servers.

The 4.5 edition also brings many new features, including a new "Basic" (HTML) client for older PCs and support for POP account aggregation and multiple user identities.

The new identities feature is designed to let you access all your mailboxes, such as corporate and Web-based accounts, through the Zimbra mail client, utilizing the features of the ZCS interface for each of your mail "identities."

Zimbra has added more capabilities for administrators, too, such as expanded management of Zimlets and a new capability for live back-up and restoral of individual mailboxes. "So if the CEO says that his mailbox has been corrupted, for instance, you don't need to run a back-up and restoral of the entire mail system," according to Dharmaraj.

In another new partnership, Zimbra is now working with rPath on a software appliance for adding the Linux OS kernel and bundled ZCS environment to bare metal. "We'll be in beta with this by March 1," he said.

Regardless of stated intentions by Microsoft and Novell to work on Windows/Linux interoperability, Zimbra will continue to concentrate on messaging and collaboration, according to Dharmaraj.

But in another new initiative, also about to enter beta, Zimbra is working on an "offline client" for desktop use.

ZCS 5.0, the next major release of the software, will focus even more on this offline client.

Also in the forthcoming 5.0 release, a product planned for the third quarter, Zimbra expects to add a separate tab for voicemail to its e-mail client, along with system-wide support for IM (instant messaging), Dharmaraj said.

As the Zimbra CEO sees it, the biggest challenge facing Zimbra right now stands on the business as opposed to the technology side. Beyond its headquarters office in San Mateo, CA, Zimbra has recently opened facilities in both India and the United Kingdom.

"We've already been able to scale our product. Now we're scaling our business to support the growing numbers of customers," he told LinuxPlanet.

Outside of H&R Block, Zimbra's customer list now includes Raytheon, Interim Healthcare, Banco ProAmerica, Digium, Digg, Zip Realty, Sunterra, BackCountry.com, The Ohio State University, and the University of Hawaii, to name a few.

Dharmaraj also told LinuxPlanet that ZCS competes well on the basis of price. Beyond the open source edition, which is downloadable free of charge, Zimbra sells four commercial, or "network," editions of the component-based software: Standard Edition, Professional Edition, Consumer Edition, and E-mail Edition. Many but not all of the features in the commercial editions are also included in the open source version, he said.

Although the consumer and e-mail editions are sold to hosting providers only, the standard and professional editions are available to both hosters and business, education, government, and non-profit organizations. Pricing for businesses ranges from $18 to $35 per user, per year, including support and software updates. Zimbra offers discounted pricing to education, government, and non-profit users. A Zimbra Mobile option carries an additional annual licensing fee, starting at $500.

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