The state of open source groupware

Mail Call


Zarafa [11] (Figure 8) manages completely without venture capital. However, in a company designed for permanent growth, you do not get far without cooperation. In early March, Zarafa announced collaboration with Amazon regarding the Amazon Workmail [12] product. At the same time, the Dutch-German company made it clear that this is not a departure from the option to operate Zarafa on-premises in the company data center.

Figure 8: Zarafa is integrating apps into its web tool and reducing Outlook support.

Zarafa has focused on maximizing compatibility with Microsoft products over the past few years, but the company announced a new product strategy in January 2015 that entails moving away from Outlook. It is quite possible that the new partnership with Amazon promoted this decision. Whether the technology tipped the scales is anyone's guess, but it might well have helped that lately, some of the Dutch Zarafa developers have switched to Amazon Web Services.

The company had good success supporting Outlook on Windows, but attempting to provide a scalable implementation of Exchange Web Services (EWS) was much less successful. The risk of constantly committing resources to allow it to follow Microsoft has become too big for Zarafa.

In an announcement at the beginning of April 2015, Zarafa extended support for the current Outlook versions via the connector (Zarafa Client) by a year until April 2017. The open-source EAS implementation Z-Push [13], which is heavily influenced by Zarafa, is an option cited time and time again for customers who want to continue working with versions as of Outlook 2013. The developers have already proved that they are capable of implementing functions that go beyond the EAS specification. It is conceivable that they will, in this way, succeed in providing slightly more groupware functionality, such as the ability to delegate access to other mailboxes via ActiveSync. Mobile clients could also benefit from these changes.

Zarafa is focused on the web app now as version 2.0 on the client side. Liberation from Microsoft's groupware ideas and specifications offers an opportunity to design a product with an individual vision and distinct features. Solutions for collaboration tools that go beyond the email medium to encompass the integration of web meetings and WebDAV-compatible file management for Z-files are planned as a first step. However, because functions already exist in a similar form in other solutions, Zarafa will have to play catch-up.

A frequent point of criticism is that a graphical administration interface is missing. The Z-Admin version presented in 2011, a development of the Yaffas project [14], was unfortunately unable to fill this gap. Although the daily administration tasks, such as user and group management, are generally performed through the usual integration in existing directory services, such as Active Directory or OpenLDAP, using the directory services' native tools, tools for managing the server itself, are still not forthcoming.

Kopano could provide part of the solution in the future [15]. Kopano is a cloud service announced for the second quarter of 2015; it takes Zafara's changed business model into account and aims to let users manage and optimize their own Zafara installations – either as a cloud service or on a local network.


The original investors of Zimbra [16] are the absolute winners of the venture capital poker game. The starting capital reported by insiders as $15 million was all it took – thanks to the clever placing of products at companies like Comcast, one of the largest US Internet providers. The investors sold the company for $350 million to Yahoo in September 2007. Yahoo's intention of establishing a counterbalance to the world dominance of Google Apps with Zimbra in its portfolio did not work out. In January 2010, VMware announced the acquisition of Zimbra for an undisclosed sum, but certainly less than the amount paid back in 2007.

The involvement of VMware, however, was not particularly conducive to the development of Zimbra. The existing partner network was unable to cash in on an additional collaboration solution in the portfolio and also failed to integrate the product meaningfully into its own offerings.

In July 2013, VMware finally sold Zimbra to Telligent Systems, a company which – until then – had been active in the area of social software but that had at least managed to make its way into market researcher Gartner's magic quadrants and thus become relevant for decision makers.

A few months later, Telligent fully renamed itself Zimbra and, since then, has marketed all products under a single umbrella. This change was slightly irritating, because Zimbra Social and Zimbra Collaboration had almost identical version numbers. However, the signals emanating from the company in recent months, in particular relating to open source licensing and better support for the community, give rise to the hope that interesting things could still happen.

Consolidation was in the cards when Telligent took over Zimbra almost two years ago. Telligent has been trading under the evidently better known name since September 2013. The name "Zimbra," by the way, is borrowed from a Talking Heads song.)

A first major sign was set with the revival of the Zimbra desktop buried under the VMware aegis. Not all end users will like it – perhaps just because it doesn't say Outlook on the box – but Zimbra does provide a real alternative to the top dog.

The industry has been talking about HTML5 as a technological basis for an offline-capable web client for years. Zimbra Collaboration 8.5, released in August 2014, is one of the first offline-capable clients based on HTML5 (Figure 9). Customers also insisted that the developers include Exchange Web Services (EWS) support.

Figure 9: Zimbra is widespread in the US but almost invisible in Europe.

Other than the new features, the release of v8.5 also brought about a change of licensing for the open source edition to licensing models in accordance with the standards of the Open Source Initiative. The server platform is now licensed under the GPLv2; the web application is under the Common Public Attribution License (CPAL) Version 1.

In the last major release of Zimbra Collaboration 8.6 in December 2014, the developers focused strongly on the issue of accessibility and barrier-free operation of the web client, as per the US section 508 [17] specification. Keyboard support throughout is due for implementation in Version 8.7.

Zimbra has also tried to upgrade its own portfolio through acquisitions of companies and products. Mezeo, a provider of file sync and share software, was added in July 2014. A new product named "Zimbra Sync and Share" was all ready to go, but a July 2015 announcement revealed that, because of a consolidation in the market for file sharing and disappointing feedback from testers, they would abandon the product [18]. According to the vendor, the plan is to supplement or completely replace the existing Zimbra data storage in the medium term.

The Zimbra product shows surprising continuity, given the frequent changes of ownership. Because large customers from the early years stayed around, it was possible for the core team to continue working normally under new management. The result is a versatile solution with sophisticated installation and administration tools, as well as good and comprehensive documentation.


Not much is new in Kerio and Tine (except for CalDAV and CardDAV for both of them). PostPath is completely out of the race. Zarafa is shaking a little because several developers left the company, but mainly because of the decision not to support Outlook in the future. A new version of Scalix provides some useful new features.

Zimbra is as financially strong as ever but is mainly represented in the US, which also leads to great continuity within the software. It is quite possible that Zimbra might soon move more in the direction of open source, which is the traditional domain of Kolab. Kolab developers and managers are continually promoting and investing in open source software – a tendency that was very much on display at the recent 2015 Kolab Summit.

The Author

Dirk Ahrnke has focused on groupware products and IT infrastructure solutions in the commercial area for more than 15 years. He is the founder and Managing Director of it25 GmbH, Leipzig, Germany.

Markus Feilner is a Linux specialist from Regensburg, Germany. He has worked with Linux as an author, trainer, consultant, and journalist since 1994. The Conch diplomat, Minister of the Universal Life Church, and Jedi Knight today heads the documentation team at SUSE in Nuremberg, Germany.

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