InsightConnector: Turning an IMAP Server into a Full Platform

Thanks to InsightConnector, a new product from Bynari, IMAP mail accounts, which were once limited to storing Outlook mail messages and posts, can now handle all kinds of Outlook items. Bynari, known to the Outlook and Exchange Server community for its work on the TradeXCH UNIX client for Exchange Server, designed InsightConnector for organizations with as few as 25 users and as many as tens of thousands. InsightConnector can turn an IMAP server into a full platform that lets you use Outlook to share data through both individual mailbox folders and public folders.

InsightConnector installs as an Exchange client extension, so it's compatible with all versions of Outlook. The connector maps the IMAP folders in a user's mailbox to a Personal Folders (.pst) file on the local machine and synchronizes the .pst file with the server folders either on demand, or when Outlook starts and shuts down. Although Outlook doesn't typically let you use an IMAP account as the default information store (which is where the default Inbox, Contacts, and other folders reside), that rule doesn't apply here because Outlook sees the InsightConnector- enabled .pst file as a .pst file, not as an IMAP account. As a result, items synchronized from the IMAP account to the .pst folder work like Outlook items. Tasks and appointments fire reminders. Contacts appear in the Outlook Address Book. Sent messages appear in the Sent Items folder, and items you delete appear in the Deleted Items folder. However, depending on the IMAP server, Outlook default folders such as Contacts and Calendar might not appear on the same level as the Inbox, but instead as subfolders of the Inbox. This oddity results from a server-permissions restriction that governs where a user can create new IMAP folders, but it doesn't affect the functionality of the Outlook folders.

The real benefit comes from using InsightConnector with IMAP accounts on a server that supports folder-level ACLs, such as Bynari's InsightServer or the open-source Cyrus IMAP server. With such a back end, users can share their IMAP mailbox folders with other InsightConnector users on the same server and access any folders that other users have shared. InsightConnector synchronizes those folders in other users' mailboxes to the local .pst file so that users can work with them offline. (Exchange doesn't support access to other users' folders in its implementation of offline folders.) InsightConnector also lets you create public calendar, contacts, and other special Outlook folders that work like regular Outlook folders.

InsightConnector has some limitations, and the interface could stand a few tweaks. The synchronization implementation can be intrusive, until you configure most folders to sync on demand. Another limitation is that the software appears to lack any direct support for Outlook custom forms. A possible workaround might be for users to publish any required forms to their Personal Forms library, rather than relying on forms published to a public folder.

In all, however, InsightConnector is a leap forward for organizations that need to collaborate and that prefer Outlook on the desktop but don't want to install Exchange Server for whatever reason. Interestingly, Bynari Chief Technical Officer Tom Adelstein says the company didn't start out to build a new Outlook IMAP component. The original goal was to build an IMAP server that could run under Linux and scale up to tens of thousands of users on machines such as IBM zSeries mainframes and Intel xSeries platforms. When that project resulted in InsightServer, Adelstein says Bynari looked into building a client, but felt that Outlook was already the best client available. Therefore, the company set out to make Outlook function more completely as a collaboration client in an IMAP environment.

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