Groupware Alternatives to Microsoft Exchange

SMBs don't need the complexity of Exchange to share folders

Microsoft Exchange Server's ability to let users easily share information using a familiar structural metaphor—mail and folders— contributed to its early success. However, as Exchange has grown to meet the needs of the largest organizations (and increased in cost), it's surrendered the simplicity that let smaller organizations with fewer technical resources use it comfortably. Other groupware products now meet the needs of small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs), and I review three: MDaemon 9.0.1 Pro from Alt-N Technologies, Ipswitch Collaboration Suite 2006 Premium Edition from Ipswitch, and Kerio MailServer 6 from Kerio Technologies.

In comparing these products, I focused on workgroup collaboration features and other aspects I think will interest systems administrators. You'll find additional information in the accompanying feature comparison table (Table 1).

All three of these strong products support SMTP, POP3, and IMAP servers. Each product has antispam features, plus security features that include Bayesian and content filtering, blacklists and whitelists, dial-up connection support, and reverse DNS lookups. All support list servers, LDAP for contacts, attachment blocking by file type, email address aliases, and server-based client email handling rules. Finally, each product's core groupware and collaboration feature sets worked well. Where these products differ is in their specific feature sets and how effectively they are implemented.

MDaemon 9.0.1 Pro
MDaemon 9.0.1 Pro from Alt-N Technologies is a mail server with group collaboration features that you access through a Web interface. I reviewed MDaemon with the AntiVirus 2.2.9 add-on and Outlook Connector 2.1.1, an add-on that lets Microsoft Outlook 2000 and later use MDaemon's collaboration features. Outlook Connector requires the installation of an Outlook add-on on the client.

Installing MDaemon on the server is routine. It installs with its own Web server to support WebAdmin (its Web-based interface) and WorldClient (its Web-mail program). However, you can choose to use Microsoft IIS or another Web server for WebAdmin and WorldClient. The default installation lets WebAdmin and WorldClient coexist with IIS by assigning them nonstandard IP ports. WorldClient supports SyncML, a standard for synchronizing calendar and contact data on mobile devices. You can use WorldClient on the client system to install the client-side Outlook Connector, although you might prefer to place the installation file on a network share. The client-side Outlook Connector installs as a new MAPI provider.

MDaemon Pro is loaded with features. I started my testing by creating several new email users. I used both administrative interfaces: the console GUI and WebAdmin. As Figure 1 shows, the GUI is heavily populated with tabs, buttons, and menu items. You can carry out all configuration options with just a few keystrokes. The WebAdmin interface is convenient, but some of the GUI functions, such as the ability to set a folder type when creating a public folder, aren't available. I used both interfaces to create a series of public folders and found the console GUI easier to navigate.

MDaemon's collaboration features support all of Outlook's familiar folder types: Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Tasks, Notes, and Journal. Outlook 2000 displayed the standard-Outlook folders, and Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 also worked as expected. You can restrict use of the Outlook Connector to specified accounts or allow open access. Administrators can create hierarchies of IMAP public folders. You can also let Outlook users create new folders under specific existing public folders. If you assign an email address to a public folder, MDaemon places mail sent to that address by authorized users into the associated folder.

You can set MDaemon to monitor an Active Directory (AD) domain, creating and optionally disabling mail accounts as it detects changes in AD. This feature would simplify administration, but I didn't test it.

I did test sharing private folders, which is particularly well implemented in MDaemon, given the IMAP structure. MDaemon lets users assign private folder access to other users at a granular level. For example, you can let another user update and add items to the folder but not delete existing items. However, folders outside of Outlook Connector accounts can't be shared.

In testing MDaemon's free/busy server group scheduling functions, I had to manually configure the free/busy query string in Outlook. Under Outlook 2003, the free/busy function worked well. However, under Outlook 2000, the free/busy queries failed. I remembered that another product I tested required that Microsoft Web Publishing Wizard be installed on the client system to support free/busy features under Outlook 2000. Installing Web Publishing Wizard worked for MDaemon too, although I didn't find any mention of it in MDaemon's documentation.

All features worked well. However, I thought MDaemon took longer to implement than the other products, perhaps because it was the most configurable—and complex—of the three. MDaemon lacks one feature I wish it had: the ability to use named user groups to control folder access. Named groups save work when you want to grant a set of users access to several folders. If you have relatively little employee turnover and a simple public folder structure, however, you won't miss this feature.

Ipswitch Collaboration Suite 2006 Premium Edition
Ipswitch Collaboration Suite 2006 (ICS) expands the functionality of Ipswitch IMail Server by providing access to Outlook calendars and global address books and secure IM. I tested ICS Premium Edition, which came with Premium Anti-Virus Protection, Premium Anti-Spam, IMail 9.04, and WorkgroupShare 2.1.2, a Softalk product that allows shared access to public and private folders.

IMail is the heart of the system. It lets administrators choose one of three sources for the user IDs or passwords used to authenticate access to email and shared folders: Windows local user accounts, a proprietary IMail database, or another ODBCcompliant database.

You install five separate modules: IMail, IM, WorkgroupShare, Premium Anti-Virus, and Premium Anti-Spam. Anti-Spam must be installed on the IMail server, but you can install the others on separate servers. I installed everything on the same server. The basic software installation process was simple and well documented. However, at one point it wasn't clear whether I should enter the mail server's host (DNS computer) name or the primary mail domain; the latter was needed.

ICS's administrative interface is Web based. It works well enough, and I could navigate the pages. However, the interface could use a warning feature; configuration changes you make are lost if you fail to click Save before moving to another page.

ICS offers users a Web-based client, called Web Messaging, in addition to Outlook support. As Figure 2 shows, Web Messaging gives Web users access to email, contacts, calendars, and tasks through an interface similar to Outlook 2003's.

I found the collaborative features easy enough to set up and manage, although there's room for improvement. To use the collaboration features, you need to configure the server-based features and install a client software component. The client software synchronizes the content of public folders and shared client folders between the user's email client and the server. Every IMail email user is a potential collaboration user, although this access isn't automatic and has to be configured. You can also create collaboration-only users who have no email privileges.

ICS supports five types of public folders: Mail, Calendar, Tasks, Notes, and Contacts. You must grant someone access to a public folder when you create it, so defining user groups first makes sense. ICS gives you flexibility in assigning access rights to public and shared folders. You can grant access to a public folder to many users and groups, each having its own access level. When adding a folder to a hierarchy, you can set it to inherit access rights from the folder above it.

Users can share private folders they designate; you configure how and by whom the private folders will be accessed or authorize users to do their own configuration. The client software maintains a synchronized copy of shared folders on the server. By default, the client resynchronizes with the server every 20 minutes; clients can also request immediate resynchronization. Although resynchronization adds delay and overhead compared with IMAP-based folder sharing, it lets users share folders outside the IMAP structure, including mail from other POP3 accounts or other folders stored within an Outlook Personal Folder .pst file. (For information about using IMAP and POP, see the Web-exclusive sidebar "IMAP Vs. POP Clients on the Same Mail Account,",InstantDoc ID 50612.)

I tested client-side access in two ways: using Outlook 2003 under Windows XP and Outlook 2000 under Windows 2000 Professional. To access shared Outlook folders, you must install the WorkgroupShare Outlook add-on on each client computer. When you use a version of Outlook as the email client, WorkgroupShare implements the client-side software as an Outlook COM add-on.

On each system, I installed the client software from the network share created by the ICS installation process. ICS supports unattended installation of the client software through a logon script but requires a client-specific answer file to provide a user's Collaboration User ID (username) and password. ICS stores the user's Collaboration password separately from the IMail password. Using the IMail account management screens rather than the collaboration screens to change passwords helps keep the two accounts synchronized.

Outlook 2000 worked pretty much as I expected. A Shared Information folder appeared in the Personal Folder that receives new mail, and under it I could see the hierarchy of public folders I'd created, as well as another user's calendar folder that I shared. Outlook 2003 organized folder display by type. Of the five Public Folders I created, four appeared with their respective groups. For some reason, the Mail folder failed to appear with other mail folders. However, I could access the Mail folder in the Folder List view.

In testing WorkgroupShare's free/busy group scheduling features, I discovered that users need to manually enter the free/busy query string, which tells Outlook how to obtain free/busy information from the mail server. For free/busy support under Outlook 2000, WorkgroupShare's client installation instructions directed me to download and install Microsoft's Web Publishing Wizard on the client system. After I completed these steps, using the free/busy function to schedule a group appointment worked well.

One less-than-convenient feature has to do with the Collaboration User ID used to authenticate access on the client. To change this ID, you must uninstall and reinstall the client software.

ICS's collaboration tools are effective and easy to use and manage. Although integration of the products could be better, it doesn't pose a major problem.

Kerio MailServer 6
Kerio MailServer 6 (KMS) from Kerio Technologies is a full-featured mail server that includes groupware features. Its support for the Microsoft Entourage email client and Apple Computer Open Directory under Macintosh OS X sets it apart from the other products I reviewed.

KMS authenticates user access in one of three ways: using its own internal database, by authenticating to Windows NT domain accounts, or by authenticating to AD or Apple Open Directory using Kerberos 5. Unlike MDaemon and ICS, which ask you to select a single source to use to authenticate all email accounts, KMS lets you choose a different authentication method for different accounts. For each mail domain you create, you can specify the name of one Windows NT and one AD domain, which will be used to authenticate users who use Windows NT and Kerberos 5 authentication, respectively.

AD integration causes KMS to import all users and groups within the target AD domain. AD simplifies mail user administration, letting you enter the information KMS needs when you create or update a user's AD account. AD integration requires the installation of Kerio Active Directory Schema Extensions. Although I didn't install the schema extensions to test this functionality, KMS's implementation appears to be flexible, supporting KMS mail users sourced from one AD domain alongside users defined through the KMS administrative interface.

Installing KMS was simple: I had only to select a location for the software and enter the mail domain name and a name and password for a mail administrator. KMS includes a Web server in support of Web-based client and administrative users. By default, it uses all the standard ports, so you'll have conflicts if IIS is installed on the same server.

KMS offers two administrative interfaces: a GUI and a Web-based interface. The Web interface lets you manage only Users, Groups, and Aliases, so it isn't full featured, but I found it easy to use. KMS's Custom Setup option lets you install the GUI and Help files to your desktop for full remote administration. And the Help files actually do help.

I started my testing by using both the Web interface and the GUI to create a set of users and groups. In KMS, groups serve a dual purpose: They're used for folder authorization and for group email distribution. Creating an email address for a group is optional.

The Kerio Outlook Connector is a replacement MAPI provider and requires Outlook's presence on the computer before it can be installed. After the installation, which is a routine process, you must create a new Outlook profile. In Outlook 2000, you configure the Kerio MailServer option, then manually add Outlook Address Book support. In Outlook 2003, selecting Additional Server types presents the Kerio MailServer option with preconfigured address book support. The KMS MAPI provider can coexist with other POP3 and IMAP accounts but must be the only MAPI provider in the profile.

KMS offers three assignable levels of access rights—Reader, Editor, and Administrator—and assigns Owner rights to a folder's primary user. Implementing collaboration features was pretty easy. Anyone who has Administrator rights to a folder can create subfolders and assign rights within the folder structure using Outlook or Kerio WebMail. KMS supports six folder types: Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, Notes, and Journal.

Users can share private folders the same way an administrator shares public folders. On the Sharing and Security tab of a folder's Properties page, select or type the name of a user or group and assign the access privileges you want to allow. Users who aren't owners must ask to see the folder before it will appear in their folder list, a process called Folder Mapping (in Outlook) or Subscribing (in WebMail).

Free/busy meeting scheduling worked well and was the easiest to implement of the products I tested. KMS looks only at a user's primary calendar and its subfolders when collecting free/busy information. Names from each Contacts folder that I marked for display as an email address book were available when I selected meeting participants. Also, KMS collects free/busy data only from those who use a supported client: Outlook with the Outlook Connector, Entourage, or WebMail.

KMS's built-in Web server supports two Web-based interfaces: Kerio WebMail for desktop use and Kerio WebMail Mini, a lightweight Web interface for use with PDAs and other handheld devices. Users will enjoy the full-featured, easy-to-use Web-Mail interface. I adjusted easily to the layout, which is similar to an Outlook Folder view, as Figure 3 shows. Right-clicking a folder or a mail item produces useful context menus, and a Settings button provides entry to options such as Rules, Out-of-Office setup, and the client refresh interval. Reminders pop up and provide Snooze and Dismiss options.

I found it easy to navigate KMS's UIs and administrative interfaces. Additionally, the AD extensions add a dimension of integration and manageability unique to KMS among the products I reviewed.

A Win-Win-Win Situation
Whether you prefer the high configurability of MDaemon, the flexibility of Ipswitch Collaboration Suite, or the thoughtful attention to detail and easy administration of Kerio MailServer 6, you won't find a bad product in this group. I designate KMS as my Editor's Choice for its well-rounded feature set, which was designed with the needs of SMBs in mind. Implementing KMS should be a relatively easy experience for users and not particularly difficult for administrators. Overall, I found working with KMS a pleasure.

MDaemon 9.0.1 Pro with Outlook Connector and AntiVirus Add-ons
PROS: Highly configurable server and Web client features; AD monitoring simplifies administration; workable folder sharing features; user-configurable Web interface
CONS: Outlook client installation isn't an unattended process; lack of support for security groups; structure is complex to implement and maintain
RATING: 4 out of 5
PRICE: MDaemon Pro is $1015 for 100 seats; Outlook Connector is $720 for 100 seats; AntiVirus is $440 for 100 seats
RECOMMENDATION: I recommend MDaemon for those who need its unique features—such as SyncML support—and want a high degree of configurability.
CONTACT: Alt-N Technologies * 817-601-3222 *

Ipswitch Collaboration Suite 2006 Premium Edition
PROS: Easy-to-manage access to public folders; support for security groups; folders can inherit access rights from parent
CONS: Outlook client installation isn't an unattended process; administrative interface doesn't remind you to save changes
RATING: 4 out of 5
PRICE: $2995 for 100 seats
RECOMMENDATION: You should consider ICS if you want IM or want to share Outlook Personal Folders (and don't mind a synchronization delay).
CONTACT: Ipswitch * 781-676-5700 *

Kerio MailServer 6
PROS: Supports Macintosh users through Microsoft Entourage and Apple Computer Open Directory; well-designed, easy-to-use folder sharing features; AD integration can reduce administrative effort; excellent Web client
CONS: Web-based administration isn't full function, although you can install and use the GUI version remotely
RATING: 4 1/2 out of 5
PRICE: Starts at $499 for 20 users ($749 with McAfee antivirus); after the first year, update subscriptions start at $149 ($249 with McAfee antivirus)
RECOMMENDATION: I found KMS the easiest product to implement, manage, and use and recommend it unless you need IM.
CONTACT: Contact: Kerio Technologies * 408-496-4500 *
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