Exchange, Kerio, Zimbra and Google or the Quest for the perfect Collaboration tool

One of my main goals in my everyday work flow is to keep all my informations at one central location and have access to them from everywhere. Meaning I want all my emails, contacts and calendar entries in sync, whether I use my mobile phone, my own laptop or I have to get to my data in the Maldives.

In this post I will try to share my experiences with each platform and how it fit my personal work flow. As a consultant I have deployed some of these in companies as well. Wherever possible I will try to touch the company advantages of it.

Exchange Server 2003/2007

Let’s start with the most popular Collaboration platform of it all. Exchange has been around for a long time and has matured from a “very hard to configure” system to a “wow, that was easy”, “Wizard driven” experience. I can remember setting up my first Exchange Server, swearing for 3 weeks and then reformat the whole server to start all over again. Thus when I installed Exchange Server 2003 about 2 years ago, it was a pleasant surprise.

Of course, MS still thinks it has to invent its own protocols and “forces” users to use them, as such that “normal” mail server functions like POP3 and IMAP are not enabled by default on Exchange 2003 and eMail addresses take a internal Domain format rather then the standard DNS system format. But once you pass those hurdles and configure your system to your likings, enabled MobileSync, finished configuring SharePoint, set access permission and so on, I have to say that Exchange Server 2003 is a very good collaboration platform.

Web Access over their OWA platform looks very good (at least on Windows with Internet Explorer) for FireFox or MacOS users the experience is somehow, let’s say, ok. After all, their main client is Outlook or Entourage and both perform very well. Calendar and contacts are synced instantly and there is nothing else to do then simply use it. Since SP2 push email syncing for mobile devices (Windows Mobile) is built in. To be honest, the Exchange Server platform has a lot going for it and it is therefore no wonder why so many companies use it.

Kerio MailServer

kerioSince Exchange Server is only available on the Windows operating system, the team from Kerio MailServer tries to fill the void for all those MacOS X and Linux system admins that are in need for a Collaboration platform. Kerio features almost the same as the Exchange offering as it has Calendar, Contacts and of course eMail functions built in.

Especially, the web interface for the end user of the Kerio MailServer, is one of the bests I have ever seen. These guys, had a intuitive web interface 3 years ago when AJAX was still know as a washing cream (here in Europe) and not some sort of geek term.

I have personally, used Kerio MailServer within my company for the last 3 years. But to be honest, their take to syncing a  Calendar and contacts has been mediocre in the past. Somehow, it never really worked or was a clutch from an end user point of view. But in recent times, they have done their home work and their Connectors, small applications that you need to install for being apply to sync Outlook and/or Apple Mail, iCal and AddressBook or Entourage, have matured a lot.

Last but not least, their Administration client (yes another client), must be the best there is to manage a mail server. Also, the built in Anti-Spam and Anti-Virus functions are impressive. In our use of Kerio MailServer we caught Spam message down to about 1% per mailbox.

The only grips I have with them is that their pricing is quite high, compared to the Exchange Server or the other platforms described here. Plus, their support for mobile devices is somehow limited (but more to that further down in this post).

Zimbra

Now, being myself a open source fan (I mean we publish software under open source licenses ourselves) I have/had high hopes for the Zimbra Collaboration Platform. Since I wanted to deploy the server on our own servers I downloaded the available Open Source Edition. In it’s true Linux fashion you will have to start a script to install Zimbra.

I was pleasantly surprised how well thought out the installer script was. It asked me the most relevant questions, checked that I had all required libraries installed (yum is your friend here) and presented me with every step of the installation process. In the end, all I had to to was to change the password for the admin account and Zimbra was installed.

The experience with Zimbra is that everything is within your browser. The administration takes place within your favorite browser (something that Kerio should have done) and feels very mature. Personally, I have missed the advanced spam filter and Anti-Virus settings that Kerio features, but after all, Zimbra comes with a lot of functions out of the box.

I am also very impressed by their Zimbra Desktop product. The application serves well as a replacement for Outlook and Apple Mail. It bundles Mail, Contacts and Calendar in one application, one convenient view and takes the approach of GTD (Getting Things Done) more then any other platform.

zimbraIn my testing I have had no problems with syncing my iCal Calendar to the Zimbra server. Events created within Zimbra (Web or Desktop) were pushed down to iCal within seconds. But what is really bothering me with Zimbra, is that they take the approach of giving a half backed Open Source solution to the community. Such that key pieces, such as the Apple Sync application (to be able to sync your contacts too) and other key applications (MAPI for Outlook users) are only available to paid “professional” Zimbra customers.

While I don’t have a problem to pay for products, especially open source products, the price of a Zimbra professional Edition for 25 mailboxes, Mobile Access and 3 Support Incidents for $1875/year seamed to be a bit way too much. I mean, I only want to have the option to sync my Calendar and Contacts with my own installation, on our own network, on our own servers!

So far, Exchange Server, especially the SBS (Small Business Server Edition) is still the most affordable platform. That is, until…

Here comes Google

I have to admit, I have not been a Google fan in the past. Whenever possible I tried to avoid any of their products, be it Desktop Search, their web search portal, Google Earth or anything. But I have had to rethink my attitude towards their Google eMail Service when I learned to use it more and seeing how it matured over the past.

Today, I have to say, the “Google Experience” and what they offer for companies is quite amazing. And I am not talking about the feature set of Calendar, Contacts or eMail, I am talking about that any business can move their whole eMail infrastructure to Google and all that for free!

You can pass your mail domain to Google and eMail over the gmail.com domain with your own domain name. No one will ever notice that you are using Google. Their Standard Edition gives you 50 mailboxes with each 7GB space. Each user gets their own contact list and Calendars. You can start sharing Calendars, invite others for a meeting and collaborate on Documents, just like with SharePoint.

It is no secret that their web client is one of the most liked and that some people have even started to only use their browser as their eMail client. While I am also all for browser based applications, I still like to use a dedicated eMail client for my day to day usage. Thus it is a pleasure to see that Google covers using Apple Mail, iCal and Contacts and Outlook with GMail.

To be able to sync your Calendar and Contacts with the Google platform you will have to use 3rd party applications. That is on Outlook I have found KiGoo to be very useful. KiGoo allows you to sync your (multiple) Calendar(s) and Contacts right within your Outllok application. There is nothing else then to set and forget. For only $9.95/year you can’t ask for more then that. On the MacOS X side I could only find one solution that worked for me, that is SpanningSync. SpanningSync is a System Preference that allows you to configure what to sync and in what time frame and it will sync your Calendar and Contacts to the Google platform with ease. The only thing drawback of SpanningSync is the strange yearly license of $25 or a one time license fee of $65. For my taste a bit on the expensive side, but it does what it says.

Mobile Phone Access

Today, more then ever, people “work” on their mobile devices. As I mentioned in the beginning, a Collaboration platform is only complete if I have a full circle of access, that not only means to have a web interface, a nice desktop client, but also access and syncing with my mobile device. So, let’s see how those platforms hold up for mobile syncing.

Exchange Server

As of Exchange Server SP2, users with a Windows Mobile device, can sync to their Exchange Server without any additional software or license. Contacts, Calendar and eMail is being kept in sync and from my experience works painlessly. In the last 2 years I used a BlackBerry device and we run our own BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) with a Exchange Server. All in all, a satisfying experience that I can only recommend. That is, if you have the IT staff to set it all up and maintain it. The same goes with the famous iPhone. Since Apple released the AtiveSync in their 2.x update for the iPhone, keeping in sync with the iPhone is a breeze as well.

Kerio MailServer

The Kerio MailServer licensed the ActiveSync protocol from MS and thus once could say that any device that is labeled to be working with Exchange Server will work with the Kerio MailServer as well. Make sure, you look up if your device will be supported. BlackBeery users wll need to adopt a third party vendor to be able to sync their devices. I have tested NotifyLink in the past and was disapointed to see that the BlackBerry Chat feature was/is not supported. Users who want to sync their iPhone need to know that the current Kerio version (6.6.2) does not support attachment and HTML eMails.

Zimbra

As already mentioned above, the Zimbra Collaboration Suite has a lot going for it, but the “you need to be a paid customer” mantra continous on when it comes to the Mobile device support. You will need to have a paying Zimbra Collaboration Suite in order to install the “Zimbra Mobile” service and some of their Mobile applications are again only available for paid users. Apart from that, their offering for Mobile Devices support is broad. You have BlackBerry Connector (Beta), Java applications for Java enabled phones and of course the ability to use the iPhone with the ActiveSync and IMAP combo.

Google

Again, Google is taking it all a bit further and is offering the broadest support for almost any mobile device for free. There are addons for BlackBerry devices, iPhone, Android phones Windows Mobile phones and more. Recently, Google released Google Sync for Mobile which is available for most mobile phones. On iPhone, Blackberry and Windows Mobile devices Google Sync enables over-the-air synchronization of Google Calendar and Google Contacts to the built-in Calendar and Address Book applications on your phone. On most other mobile phones, Google Sync enables wireless synchronization of Google Contacts to the built-in Address Book application.

Final words and a recommendation

Of course, a proper recommendation alsways takes into account the circumstanes of the requirements of the company or the people involved in a Collaboration Suite. But given the current offerings and my experience with all of the above platforms I would give the following “list”:

  1. Google
  2. Exchange Server
  3. Kerio MailServer
  4. Zimbra

Why Google? Honestly, you can not beat the offering from Google. The availability, the feature set, the free services, the available mobile connections, the working syncing of Calendar and Contacts and the price (standard is free for 50 accounts with each 7GB storage) makes Google a serious application provider for any business or semi-professional user.