Linux making its mark in messaging

Just as Linux is being presented as a viable alternative to Windows for network-plumbing tasks such as file and print and Web serving, it is starting to rise as an application-layer option, especially with clustering, IP and virtualization improvements in the latest Linux kernel.

In the past decade, the biggest winner on the e-mail server landscape has not been IBM/Lotus Domino or Microsoft Exchange, but Windows, the operating system that supports the majority of messaging and collaboration platforms in use today.

But just as Linux is being presented as a viable alternative to Windows for network-plumbing tasks such as file and print and Web serving, it is starting to rise as an application-layer option, especially with clustering, IP and virtualization improvements in the latest Linux kernel.

The proof is in a messaging landscape flush with Linux versions of e-mail and collaboration servers from IBM/Lotus, Novell and Oracle. Novell also launched in February an open-source project called Hula to develop a standards-based server with a browser interface that focuses on e-mail, calendars and contacts.

Smaller vendors such as @Mail, Gordano, Kerio, Netline, Scalix and Stalker, also offer messaging servers on Linux.

While the converts remain mostly small and midsize companies, they are raising awareness at a time when millions of users of Microsoft Exchange 5.5 are seeing support end for their software.

"Linux is all business, there is no fluff. It does its job," says John Giantelli, the senior IT director at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). "After two years, we are up, we are running and we are happy."

Giantelli converted to Linux in 2003, which he picked over Windows 2000 to run his Notes/Domino installation and to replace his aging and unstable Windows NT infrastructure.

"Downtime is unacceptable to us," says Giantelli. "The Microsoft OS runs some of my products here very well, but for mail it was just not cutting it."

Giantelli says his messaging costs have dropped 30%, mostly coming from the reliability and the cheaper hardware that his mail server is running on. He extended Linux throughout his messaging infrastructure via management tools based on Webmin, and anti-spam and anti-virus software from McAfee. He also is in the process of moving Lotus Quickplace, which is software for creating ad hoc online workgroups, from Windows 2000 to Linux.

Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research, says there's no mass migration underway, but calls Linux "a viable alternative."

A Linux-based messaging platform makes sense for those adopting more Linux who want to streamline management chores. It also makes sense for those who are averse to licensing changes around software maintenance on the Microsoft platform that put users on perpetual upgrade paths, he says.

Julie Farris, founder and chief strategy officer for Linux-based messaging vendor Scalix, says e-mail is a strong candidate as a killer application for Linux.

"E-mail is so closely coupled to the operating environment, and it has historically been used to drive platform adoption," she says. "That dates back to IBM and DEC, which used PROFS and All-in-1 [respectively] to drive adoption of the mainframes and minicomputers." Farris says LAN mail pioneer cc:Mail, where she once worked, created a disruptive platform shift that eventually sunk PROFS and All-in-1 during the LAN revolution.

"The reason that I started Scalix three years ago was based on a bet that Linux would be a similar disruptive shift in the world of e-mail and messaging," says Farris, a 17-year industry veteran.

In a recent survey by Osterman Research, nearly 43% of 103 respondents said they would probably or definitely consider switching there back-end servers if it meant they did not have to change desktop clients. Roughly 32% said that if they could start with a clean slate they would consider Linux or some platform other than Windows on which to build their messaging platforms. In addition, roughly 22% said they would prefer their next messaging platform on something other than Windows.

That still leaves a majority selecting Windows, which is the platform for Exchange and for a majority of Notes/Domino users. Those users like to take advantage of Windows' wealth of third-party tools and availability of trained administrators.

And Linux-based messaging platforms still have some limitations, experts say.

"The majority of the Linux products are from smaller vendors and are focused on providing reliable e-mail routing and mailboxes, and usually calendaring/scheduling, but not much else," says Mark Levitt, an analyst with IDC. "This means that you won't tend to find more advanced features out of the box. Also, there are limited third-party add-ons designed to work with these products, which means extending the smaller vendors' platforms is most often a customer build-your-own task."

Linux lineup

Here’s a sampling of messaging servers that run on Linux:
Vendor/ProductHighlights
@Mail’s Server Mode Web-based e-mail ships with complete source code.
Gordano’s Messaging ServerIM, archiving among features; supports Outlook.
IBM/Lotus’ Notes/DominoLeading corporate collaboration platform.
Kerio’s MailServerTargets Microsoft Exchange with shared calendars, contacts and tasks through Outlook client.
Netline’s Open-XchangeFormer SuSE Linux product with service and support provided by Novell.
Novell’s GroupWiseE-mail, calendaring, scheduling, instant messaging, introducing Outlook plug-in.
Oracle’s Collaboration SuiteE-mail calendars, online work spaces, Web conferencing; supports Outlook.
Real Time Enterprises’ Linux Mail ServerAnti-virus/spam features available; supports Outlook.
Scalix’s Scalix ServerHP OpenMail is server foundation; supports Outlook, Web access.
Stalker’s CommuniGate ProReal-time features, anti-virus/spam; supports Outlook.

But Linux converts are citing reliability and cost issues as reasons to switch. And with top corporate platforms such as Notes/Domino and GroupWise available on Linux, users don't have to give up functionality.

In addition, smaller vendors are offering integration with Microsoft Outlook and Novell's Evolution clients, and browser interfaces and connections to mobile devices, which allow users to switch messaging platforms without disrupting end users. On the infrastructure side integration with Microsoft's Active Directory, Novell's eDirectory and other directory services based on Lightweight Directory Access Protocol plug Linux into current user management systems.

"Why Linux? Why now? Because I wanted something that was stable," says Edward Bailey, a former Exchange user and director of IT operations for the Department of Materials Science & Engineering at the University of Florida. "In the last year, I've only had 30 minutes of unplanned downtime."

Bailey runs Scalix, which he says is the best substitute for Exchange. He says the only blip in adopting the platform is the Linux learning curve. "The underlying OS can be an issue for some. I don't think your average Exchange admin could easily make the switch over," he says.

But some say that also is starting to become less of an issue.

"People are saying this is a serious platform and it needs some serious apps," says Ted Haeger, director of product marketing for collaboration at Novell.

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