Caldera Volution Messaging Server: A Product Review

by Hans-Cees Speel

Linux is making progress in many server areas. For instance, I have a Mitel (formerly e-smith) server at home that serving files and printers with Samba and doing firewall and web server duties as well. One of the newest addition to the server arena came when Caldera launched Volution Messaging Server (VMS). VMS features integration with Microsoft's Outlook and offers calendaring/scheduling options with shared busy/free information, SSL support for e-mail and easy configuration.

The Specs

VMS is built around Postfix for the MTA, Cyrus for message storage, Horde/IMP/MySQL for web mail, and OpenSSL and pam-ldap for authentication.

After reading the administration guide I found some interesting details:

  • You can filter spam and other e-mail based on the headers.

  • You can integrate the server with antivirus solutions.

  • You can shut down web mail, which is nice if you don't use it and don't want to waste the processor time or if you want to minimize potential security leaks.

More importantly, the server is easy to administer once it is placed and configured. Adding and deleting users and setting up e-mail groups are easy and well thought out procedures. The LDAP server makes it possible for you to see the e-mail addresses of users in Outlook, and you can use them to send e-mail or you can copy them to your address book. Most important of all, VMS supports some functions for calendaring in Outlook 97/2000, such as sharing busy/free information (no Outlook XP sharing, though). Most administrators who have worked in small or medium-sized companies will understand that calendaring and group sharing information are extremely popular features of the IT infrastructure.

Installation and Configuration

I received two CDs for installation, one with Caldera's OpenLinux Server 3.1, which won't run on AMD K6 or Pentium I processors, and one with VMS. VMS itself only runs one OpenLinux and Open UNIX, so I could not use my old K6 even though it is fast enough (550MHz). I had to rip out the hard disks of my Athlon 1133 workstation, then put in a 10 gig disk and boot off the CD. About 20 minutes later I had Open Linux installed. You have to install it as a web server, and you can partition with Reiserfs (I wouldn't use a nonjournaling system on an e-mail server).

Next, I put in the VMS CD and a pop-up screen appeared. One bad thing was that the OK/Cancel buttons were off the screen, but with some blind Tab/Enter pressing I made it through. This install was too boring to write about (a good thing), so I'll move on to the nice bits.

For the installation, I named the server exchangekiller. Once the server is installed, you can go to several places. You can log in as admin:admin and change the admin password to something like adp1us. From this screen you can add/delete e-mail domains and users. You can also add users with some command-line tools if you have lists of users (nice if you have 120 users and RSI). I added Bert, Ernie and Pino, all @hc.net, a domain that I added. I also added [email protected] You also can create e-mail groups, with owners that can add/delete users in the groups. E-mail users do not have to be users on the Linux sytem, but it's more secure if they are of course.

There are several more places you can go:

  • exchangekiller:1000--the webmin interface where you can add SSL certificates in an easy manner.

  • exchangekiller:8457--the document server for VMS.

  • exchangekiller--general Caldera e-server information.

  • exchangekiller/Horde/IMP--the web mail server.

  • www.caldera.com/support/docs/volution/msg--the administration guide, updates and so on.

Now, I was ready to install the clients to see what the server could do. I installed Outlook 2000 on Windows 98 and inside VMware 2.0 on Windows 2000. I also used Outlook Express and Pegasus (www.pmail.com), my favorite e-mail client on Windows--it's free, no Outlook-like virus catching and very complete.

If you are a user, using VMS with Outlook is easy. These are the steps:

  • Install Outlook (I used Outlook 2000).

  • Go to exchangekiller/msg.

  • Log in with username:password, e.g., [email protected]:evil.

  • Click the link Client setup.

  • Click Run the Program (not Save).

  • Choose Internet-only when Outlook asks you how you want to configure it.

  • Start up Outlook. You will see a map called Volution Messager server, where the messages from the server are kept.

Isn't that cool? No filling in details. Caldera did that all for you with one click. This also works with Outlook Express, by the way.

The idea of one-button configuration is brilliant, and here it actually works flawlessly. Nothing is perfect, however, and if you want to share your calendaring information with others, you still have to fill in some details.

  • In Outlook, go to Tools-->Options-->Calendar-->Free/Busy options.

  • Put a check in the box about sharing your calendaring data.

  • Fill in ftp://ernie:[email protected]/pub/calendar/%NAME%.vfb.

And everyone using this same server as a share server for their calendaring can see if you are busy at a time when they want to schedule a meeting with you.

Some Comparisons with Microsoft Exchange

From the configuration part you will be able to guess what VMS can do and also what it cannot do (yet). It is important to notice that it supports Outlook but only in internet mode. This means that calendaring information, which can be shared, is not stored on the server but on the client in the outlook.pst file. This simply means that without a lot of work for the IT staff, users are supposed to always do their calendaring from the same computer. If you have a company where everyone has laptops or their own computer, no problem. But if you have users moving around and using different computers all the time, it becomes for calendaring work.

Solutions are there, though. For instance, you can put the outlook.pst file on a share on a file server. Make an f-drive on some file server where all users have a home directory and direct Outlook to look there. This will work for Outlook 97 and 2000. However, this means you have to configure every Outlook workstation in the company--possible, but it doesn't make you happy. It should be possible to configure the one button config scheme so that this is solved automatically when you configure Outlook. That is, the administrator fills in the details where he or she wants the outlook.pst file, and the config button makes this happen.

What is completely impossible with VMS is sharing duties on a user's calendar with another. Say, for example, the director has a secretary who administers his calendar. In Outlook the director could give the secretary a "role" that would allow the secretary to see and change entries in the director's agenda. This is currently not an option in VMS.

Overall, if I were to give Caldera a list, here's what I would say are already great:

  • LDAP support so that all users can search for other users (a sort of server-side contact list)

  • Sharing of busy/free information

  • One-button configuration for Outlook

  • The easy way to add/delete users and groups

  • The possibility for web mail

  • The possibility to use SSL for all e-mail traffic.

Things that should be added are:

  • A way to have all calendaring information appear on the server so that users can work from any location.

  • A way to better control the way calendaring duties are shared (the secretary options).

Some small wishes include:

  • Why does the VMS mail box only have an inbox folder, and is it possible to make folders other than the inbox folder? I would like a work folder next to my inbox folder.

  • It would be great if the Next buttons would appear on the screen when VMS is installing.

  • It would be nice if the sharing by FTP server would be turned on by default or if the administrator can set this to be on by default. Typing this in is a hassle.

When comparing VMS to the calendaring options of Exchange, I think it is relevant to compare the prices as well. VMS costs (for 25 users with e-mail support) $1,034 US. If you want 25 users more, add $799 US. Thus for 50 users, it would cost about $1,825 US. Microsoft Exchange will cost you a license for a 2000 server, a license for an Exchange 2000 server and 50 user licenses for the 2000 server, plus 50 user licenses for the Exchange server. When you include all the client licenses, it adds up to $6,275 US for the same amount of users.

Conclusion

Caldera's Volution Messaging Server has the potential to be a killer app, depending on the needs of a business and the money they want to spent. However, some details need to be improved.

Caldera says on their site that VMS can be integrated with the calendaring products of Steltor. Steltor has a Linux-based calendaring server with an Outlook connector that provides the features of the corporate configuration of Outlook. This server, including Outlook connectors (also web-based without connector), costs $2,065 US for 50 users, with a year's support included. You can download it for trial, and it's called Corporate Time server. That solution needs an IMAP mail server, which Caldera provides with VMS.

The management of Steltor has let me know that they are working on a partnership with Caldera, and they e-mailed me the following: "The objective is to offer a joint solution that includes the Volution Messaging Server and the Steltor Calendar Server."

This solution, if it takes the promise of the easy manageability of VMS and Outlook and the industrial strength of calendaring/scheduling solutions of Steltor, and it is one product that installs easily and is not as expensive as Exchange, can be the first Linux-based Exchange replacement I take to my colleagues using Microsoft and say, "Look, we can do the same work better and cheaper with Linux." Of course, you already can buy the two products and integrate them yourself now. In this sense, the product is already out there.

If you want to spend nothing at all for software, you can always use an e-mail server like the one from Mitel (www.e-smith.com), which is also easy to administer and free, and use a calendaring solution that is completely detached from e-mail. That way you can get rid of Outlook and Office and use StarOffice and Pegasus. A search on Freshmeat.net got me the next contenders that look promising and are all free: Project-Based Calendering System (www.pbcs.com), Amphora Light (www.amphora.ee/freeware), MimerDesk (www.mimerdesk.org) and PHProjekt (www.phprojekt.com).

In the meantime, I would say Linux surely has calendaring solutions and better ones are emerging. You can go for free, get the benefits of VMS or go all the way to industrial-strength VMS/Steltor. The choice is up to you.

Hans-Cees Speel has a college education as a biologist and later pursued memetics by costarting the Journal of Memetics. After a year of Windows server administration and Linux (router disk) experimenting, he became a UNIX/Linux product engineer.

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