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Teaming Up with Zimbra's Collaboration Suite

Build It And It Will Be Easier

  • October 24, 2005
  • By Rob Reilly

Email is a pretty mundane topic these days. Since it's so pervasive, the subject is rarely brought up at social gatherings. And, if other email systems work, why switch to anything new?

Zimbra wants to make email easier and more useful. Their collaboration suite aims to do just that.

Satish Dharmaraj, Zimbra's CEO, along with CTO Scott Dietzen, led me through an online demo session, so I could report on how the software worked.

Dharmaraj said that Zimbra looked at the pain points for users and administrators. One big hitter was that users spent too much time shuffling messages around. Administrators had the ever escalating challenge of storing and maintaining massive numbers of emails and attachments, for the users.

Possible solutions were spelled out in the company's 'The Top Ten Ways To Fix Email' white paper. Here's a quick overview:

  • Self organizing mailboxes - getting rid of the folder habit.
  • Active messaging - email content links connect seamlessly to back office applications.
  • Extensible 'Integratable' collaboration - let emails also provide services for enterprise applications.
  • Self organizing conversations - cut down on manual conversation re-assembly.
  • Efficient context switching - make it easier to switch between my email and calendar view.
  • Better storage management - increase the sharing of attachments, and cut down on redundant storage.
  • Unified search, retention and archiving - make it easier to comply with information retention policies and regulations.
  • Integrated Web collaboration technology - roll tools like RSS and Wiki into the collaboration software.
  • More server-centric architecture - archiving requirements, multi-client support and faster client/server synchronization are pushing messaging products to be more server-centric.
  • Security - do tasks like single sign-on, encryption and virus protection on a server, rather than each individual client machine.

The Zimbra approach keeps track of things in a number of ways. First, it indexes messages and attachments into Apache Lucene. The Linux file system is used for messages (one message per file, which is great for OS utilities and troubleshooting). Everything else, which is mutable meta-data (folders, read/unread, tags, etc.) goes into the MySQL database. This comprehensive model allows ideal optimization for each store--files systems are the best for immutable byte-oriented messages, while SQL databases are best for mutable, structured data. This approach also gives great caching performance, which is a big win for I/O-oriented messaging systems. Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) is used to create the application and content that is displayed in a client's browser.

Other clients supported by the Zimbra server include Outlook, Evolution, Apple Mail/iCal, Chandler, etc.

By indexing email content, attachments, and associated files of various formats, the program can build queries that connect things together. Take email conversations between colleagues, for example. If all of your emails and their contents are indexed, it's easy to collect and call up the back and forth exchange of information pertaining to a project.

Putting everything in a Zimbra server and Ajax, makes it possible to connect applications to elements of the content. Flying the mouse over a phone number in a mail message, make it possible to dial the phone via an external program like Skype.

Indexing can also help the poor old email administrator. Instead of saving volumes of actual attachments across many email users, links are created to the attachments and a single copy is maintained. Zimbra's smart backup and restore makes it easy for administrators to restore old versions of content, if needed, from any time period.

Another advantage of using a Zimbra back-end, is that programs like AJAX can then be used to construct Web pages that display the content. It also confines any viruses or malware to the server and lowers the possibility of infecting a client machine. Administrators can then automatically deal with the virus at the server level.

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