Zimbra Collaboration Suite, Version 4.5

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Zimbra exploits Ajax for a compelling Web groupware experience.

E-mail is the backbone of modern corporate communication, and frankly, it has been for a long time. As with any tool that gets this much use and features so prominently in any networked business, e-mail has demonstrated a host of limitations. To improve the experience, software developers have integrated certain obvious functions, such as calendaring, simple mailing lists and address books, thereby creating what is popularly referred to as a contact management system.

The great leap for enterprise contact management was the creation of groupware, or collaboration tools, allowing those calendars and contact lists to be shared among members of an organization. Administering complex packages on thousands of personal computer desktops creates its own set of problems though. As these increasingly complex systems grew, users noticed that they were now drowning in a sea of words, always trying to reach for that elusive piece of information that would help them stay afloat.

Zimbra's raison d'être is to improve the e-mail experience by providing a suite that simplifies as well as enhances the ease with which users can sort through and retrieve information.

The Zimbra Collaboration Suite (Figure 1) is a powerful, scalable application, suited for small to medium to very large enterprises. Zimbra can be deployed in a high-availability, clustered environment where it can serve up huge numbers of clients, and serve them it does. For instance, Zimbra customer H&R Block serves up 100,000 users, while the University of Toronto's numbers are in the tens of thousands. Zimbra's customers are varied (for example, Mozilla and Digg.com), from ISPs and content providers who offer Zimbra as a service to businesses, universities, government offices and nonprofits.

Figure 1. The Zimbra Collaboration Suite, Ajax Client View

I've had a few weeks to play with the Zimbra Collaboration Suite, and I am, overall, very impressed. That said, nothing is perfect—more details as I go along.

What Does Zimbra Do?

The Zimbra Collaboration Suite belongs in a class of network applications we've come to call groupware—an intelligent collection of CRM, of which e-mail is the core, usually provided through a Web interface. In addition to e-mail, the Zimbra messaging server supports shared group calendars and contact management tools. Zimbra is both a client-side solution and a powerful integrated messaging server application that includes Postfix, LDAP, Apache and more. Zimbra includes some clever extensions, such as zimlets (more on these later), and enterprise mashups that allow users to interact naturally with information embedded in their e-mail messages, so they easily can use that information in other applications. These applications even can be third-party applications, such as a purchasing system.

It's impossible to talk about a product like Zimbra without making comparisons to Microsoft Exchange, so I answer the obvious questions here. Zimbra is an impressive replacement for Microsoft Exchange. Zimbra offers migration tools that simplify the move from Exchange to Zimbra (Lotus Notes migration tools also are available). Outlook clients are fully supported, and that means it works with all Outlook e-mail, contacts and calendar functions (MAPI sync, however, is available only with the Zimbra Network Edition). If you happen to be fond of another mail client, such as Thunderbird or Eudora, you can continue using it. That said, once you start working with Zimbra's impressive browser-based Ajax client, you may say goodbye forever to your old client software. Zimbra also supports a number of mobile devices, such as the iconic BlackBerry.

As the above paragraph hints, Zimbra is available in different flavors, including a community supported Open Source Edition and a commercially-supported Network Edition.

Working with Zimbra

Zimbra is a Web application that doesn't feel like a Web application. Several very cool features take Ajax design to a very advanced destination. For instance, Zimbra provides natural keyboard mapping.

Let me give you an example. With most Web mail applications, you would delete a message (or a batch of messages) by selecting each message with a click in a check box beside the message, finding the Delete button and clicking there. Zimbra works the way you expect your desktop application to work. Simply select a group of messages (click, Shift-click, or Ctrl-click), and then press the Delete key.

Let me give you another example. In your run-of-the-mill Web mail application, you move messages into a folder by selecting them via a check box, clicking a “move to” button, clicking on the destination folder from a drop-down list, then clicking Move. Zimbra users select their messages and drag them into the appropriate folder—exactly like you would on your desktop. To switch folders, double-click on the folder. To read a message, double-click on the message. The key mapping is so natural that after a while, you forget you are working with a Web application.

This natural, or at least familiar, approach is consistent across all Zimbra applications. In the calendar view, creating an appointment is simply a matter of dragging your mouse across a time slot, and Zimbra pops up an appointment dialog for you to fill in (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Zimbra incorporates an easy-to-use and powerful shared calendar application that is tightly integrated with the rest of the suite.

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