Monday, August 27, 2007

Proposed Enterprise linux altenatives to MS products - MS-Exchange

Date: 27-Aug-07

Exchange is easily one of the darlings of enterprise IT Managers. Its main advantages over opensource equivalents (as a solution - not as a single product) are:
  1. Much easier to administer for a large number of users with different requirements in an enterprise.
  2. Mail/Calender client integration.
  3. Delegation of powers of administration.
  4. Delegation of email access (to secretaries of busy managers etc.)
  5. Real good integration with ADS/Directory server and Windows in general.
What features are necessary for an opensource solution to provide excellent value to customers?
Instead of looking at individual mail servers and calender applications, let us try and look at what solution can we provide with opensource.
The way I see it, we can provide a complete communications solution to enterprises. The various components can be:
  1. eMail
  2. Instant Messaging
  3. VOIP
  4. Video conferencing
  5. Collaboration halls (Like Internet chat rooms.)
  6. Maybe calendering
  7. Groupware suites (I have my reservations here. E-groupware looks like a good candidate but it doesn't seem to have that 'polish'.)
From our experiences, we have decided to build this product for our customers. Our proposed solution:
  1. Make it an independent distro - That way we will not have installation dependency issues and this product can be deployed on an independent dedicated/virtualised server. We can control external risks as well as provide a comprehensive admin UI without having to worry about other Linux components.
  2. Configure all the above mentioned servers during setup - i.e. ask all the relevant details like IP addresses, mail domain, IM domain....during setup and configure them so that after setup, we have fully functional communication server without having to configuring individual servers after installation.
  3. Provide an excellent browser based user interface for users as well as admins. Using the flexibility of opensource we can provide excellent tools to users like mailing lists etc. Integration between all communication media of the solution in the same screen/UI - a la gmail+gtalk but better. This will mean microphone plug-in for firefox. We aim to make everything browser based with an optional client program. We should never need a command line for anything. All admin tasks should be accomplished using a browser. Easy backup/restore/replication functionality.
  4. Groupware integration - Am not really a big fan of this. Existing groupware seem to be too bloated. We are considering eGroupware as an optional plugin but not very seriously at this stage.

Our tentative concrete solution for the above concept:
  1. Mail server: Postfix (To decide on IMAP server)
  2. Integration with Fedora Directory server and MS-Active Directory Server
  3. On-the fly account generation for all services - i.e. Once you create an account in the directory server, as soon as the user logs into any of the services after he is given a new Directory login, he should be able to use any of the services as required without the admin having to explicitly create mailboxes etc. The mail server/IM server have to be aware that a new user has logged whose 'mailbox' and/or other directories do not exist and create them automatically. Of course the mail server itself need not have this capability but the product will have this through add-on scripts or some such mechanism.
  4. Jabber or chatty of eGroupware? for IM.
  5. VOIP - asterisk. we want to give ekiga/gnome meeting like capabilities in the browser itself.
  6. Video conferencing: H.323 based. (To be explored)
  7. Based on either Fedora or CentOS. - Why? - Excellent community. Proven server side capabilities - Huge user base, we are comfortable with Red Hat as we have been using it since 1998. Lots of 3rd party rpms if functionality needs to be extended. Aiming for binary compatibility for ease of use/administration.
  8. Totally standards based.
  9. Totally GPLed - probably GPL v3 (To be decided.)
  10. Further features to include security/encryption for all forms of communication and ability to record/store voice/video calls as well as IM sessions.
Important issues:
  1. Aim for browser based functionality and hence will try to give VOIP/Video extension to Firefox. If this seems to cumbersome/ time taking, we might provide installable clients and later move to complete browser based interface. We are exploring voice plugin fot Firefox right now.
  2. Completely standards based.
  3. Modular so that the UI can be integrated into Intranets - Look at portlet based UI to the features. That way these can be integrated into other Intranet apps like Wokflow, Proj mgmt etc.
  4. This product will be an excellent fit for thin client/terminal kind of apps. This solution should work even from 'kiosks'.
We are starting an opensource project soon on for individual components like browser plugins. We will release the code for actual product too.

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