Stumbling Into eGroupWare

Recently I have been grumbling about project management, accounting
and organizational software in general. Basically, Gixia and I want to
just build the Geek Ranch rather than be bogged down with overhead.
The reality is, however, this is too big a project to do without some
back-end organization.

As I looked for specific packages for each item I was overwhelmed with
a sense of "Phil becomes the clerk". That is, each solution, while a
potentially very powerful tool, was going to require a lot of setup
work and likely user training. I guess what I really wanted was
something that we could ease into. Something that would do some of the
"clerk work" but I could introduce incrementally to others.

The obvious answer was a "groupware solution". The best analogy I can
think of is something that on the most basic level is like a multi-user PIM.
Beyond that, however, it has additional features available such as
project scheduling or possibly a Wiki. Thus, it could start out as not
much more than a shared calendar, address book and to-do list but
could be expanded once users were comfortable with it.

To make it work, having a web interface is a big plus. While everyone
currently involved is using a Linux system with KDE, the web interface
is a plus for the following reasons:

  • You can use it from anywhere such as an Internet cafe or a WiFi
    connected Nokia 770.
  • A web browser tends to be the most used and thus most
    comfortable interface.
  • There are some other things that we don't want to move. For
    example, we all use gmail. Thus, this software just becomes another
    browser tab rather than something in another window or on another

While some alternatives were looked at, I decided eGroupWare was the
winner. Reasons for this included better documentation than some
alternatives but, probably the most important was that it is easy to
turn off (yes, I mean off) parts of its features at a user or group

Why is this important? It lowers the confusion level. For example, the
Wiki and file manager are tools that I intend to use right away but I
can disable them for others while they are getting used to the basics:
calendar, todo lists (InfoLog) and such.

My test environment was one of my trusty old IBM T23 laptops running
Kubuntu. After an Adept-based install all seemed to work fine. Along
the way, I decided a "power tool" of eGroupWare was the Knowledge
Base. While we have been using a Wiki for internal documentation, it
became clear that the Knowledge Base software would be a big help in
organizing things so they could be found.

After playing a bit on a locally setup server, I decided to load
eGroupWare onto one of the shared servers I use. As there is no magic
install in Fantastico, and I have no shell access, this means using an
FTP client to transfer the whole program to the server. The bad news
is that there are close to 6000 files to upload. Not a lot of clicks
but a lot of time. Many of these files will not be needed by everyone
(language files, for example) so it is too bad a "load it later"
option isn't presented.

It turned out that this was a flop. That is, it never really got
installed right. This is probably due to some transfer failures but
without shell access, it was just too hard to sort it out. So, on to
Plan B.

Plan B was another shared server solution where I do have shell
access. This was only a partial failure. Most specifically, the Wiki
decided not to work and I decided to be happy with Knowledge Base and
our old Wiki. To me, this experience (vs. the Kubuntu click and it
works) experience is pretty disappointing. Clearly, eGroupWare can
work but the current install just doesn't cut it.
What Features are Cool

All groupware suites will offer glorified "shared PIM" features and
then go on from there. Rather than going through what eGroupWare can
do blow-by-blow, I would rather take this space to talk about ways it
can fit in to what I need.

Some of the very basic features turn out to be very cool. For example,
bookmarks. Yes, all browsers have bookmarks but think about working as
a team. I am always emailing a URL to someone so that they can add it
to their bookmarks. The reality is, however, that bookmarks should be
like an address book. We should be able to share them.

Well, with eGroupWare, done. You can organize them, search them and
share them. And, probably most important, when one changes, only one
person needs to fix it.

The other big win was the Knowledge Base. The problems I had with the
Wiki encouraged me to see what the Knowledge Base could do. Bottom
line is that by using the Knowledge Base we can better organize and
search information than with a Wiki. Besides just articles and
question/answer sequences, it supports attachments and two kinds of
links. One link is what you would expect: URLs. But, the other allows
you to link to related articles in the Knowledge Base.

Finally, InfoLog gives you a way to add four types of things and
manage them. We elected to only use Notes and ToDos. The other two are
phone calls and email. In any case, the InfoLog gives you a place to
"scribble things" in a way that can be searched.

In conclusion, there are a lot of things I didn't like about
eGroupWare, particularly the installation problems, but it does offer
a reasonable solution to managing our shared data. I would have just
gone with the local installation on a Kubuntu system but not everyone
working on the project is here in this office. So, while there was
pain to get it working remotely, I feel it offers the best solution
for a team of non-geeks to learn and actually use.

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