Scalix potentially a serious contender to Exchange

Scalix potentially a serious contender to Exchange

Summary: After reading David Berlind's blog and listening to his podcast about a potential contender to Microsoft Exchange server, Scalix sounded almost too good to be true. As someone who's overseen and designed many Microsoft Exchange installations with hundreds or thousands of users, I have always been haunted by several issues related to any Exchange contender.

TOPICS: Microsoft

After reading David Berlind's blog and listening to his podcast about a potential contender to Microsoft Exchange server, Scalix sounded almost too good to be true. As someone who's overseen and designed many Microsoft Exchange installations with hundreds or thousands of users, I have always been haunted by several issues related to any Exchange contender. My skepticism prompted me to post a follow-up blog, in which I asked some hard-hitting questions and this talk-back to David's original blog. Since that time, Julie Farris (founder of Scalix) replied to my blog with some very impressive responses that showed Scalix was indeed a serious contender and not like some other pretenders of the past few years (hint: A guy named Larry).

However, as powerful as Farris' defense of Scalix was in terms of the client end (i.e., Web Client and Outlook plug-in), the description of the backend manageability left me a little concerned. Still, the client end sounded so impressive that I had to check out the WebEX demo of its Scalix Web Client and download a demo version of Scalix to see for myself if Scalix lived up to the hype. Here is what I found.

  • The Scalix Web Client was so impressive that it even surpassed the Microsoft Exchange 2003 OWA (Outlook Web Access) client in terms of functionality and richness. Although the Scalix Web Client may not look as "pretty" as the OWA 2003 client in terms of matching Outlook 2003's appearance and animated GUI, it easily surpassed OWA 2003 in terms of functionality -- and without the use of a flimsy and bloated J2RE applet or Microsoft's proprietary ActiveX technology. For example, the search function was phenomenal in the way that it narrows down the results in real-time as you type each letter. It populated the "To:" field and provided a pull-down menu of likely recipients as I typed each letter of the recipient's name. Even the Scalix Web Calendar was far superior to the OWA 2003 client. I think the Scalix Web Client sets a new standard for browser-based applications.
  • As for transparency on the client end for switching the Outlook client from an Exchange server to a Scalix server, the use of the word "transparent" may be a little bit of a stretch, since you can't actually keep the same type of client configuration. You have to download and install a plug-in component to connect Outlook to a Scalix server. Having said that, this isn't really too much of a downside since it's a relatively simple installation. Also, Julie Farris has promised that RPC over SSL capability will be added to a future version of the Scalix client for Outlook 2000, 2002 (aka XP), and 2003. RPC over SSL allows the full-blown Outlook client to do secure authentication and communication with an Exchange server even when a VPN is not in use. This comes in handy when your VPN client doesn't work because it's behind a firewall, doesn't support your particular VPN solution, or if VPN is blocked intentionally. Microsoft supports RPC over SSL only for Outlook 2003 and Exchange 2003, which leaves out the majority of Exchange/Outlook users. We'll have to see how long it takes Scalix to deliver on this new feature, or if Microsoft will start feeling the heat and deliver a free RPC over SSL patch for Outlook 2000 and 2002. Why bother with the full-blown Outlook client when the Scalix Web Client or even OWA 2003 already work so well? The answer is simple: Browser-based clients don't work offline and Win32 clients generally can.
  • After receiving the download link and the instructions for implementing the Scalix solution, here is where the saying "the devil is in the details" started to surface. Implementing Scalix requires a Linux guru who has some experience with Tomcat application server and is comfortable with the command-line interface. (Most of the serious configuration changes must be done with a command-line interface.) Now, this may be perfectly fine with an organization that already possesses a Linux guru or is willing to hire one, but it's completely alien to an Exchange shop. Even a happy Scalix customer, who posted this response to my original blog, admitted that Scalix wasn't for everyone.

As a result of these findings, I sent Scalix a letter with my mixed response. Even though I was extremely impressed with its solution, I had some misgivings about the lack of a manageable interface for the backend. Here is an excerpt from my letter:

It's fairly routine for a Linux guru and someone who has experience working with Tomcat application server. However, those are foreign languages to an Exchange or Windows administrator. I'm assuming those are the people you're targeting. In addition, setting up the hooks to merge into an existing AD and Exchange environment looks like it requires a CLI (Command Line Interface), which is by no means trivial for an Windows/Exchange guy. The management interface appears to be lacking and I can tell you that you will have a huge obstacle convincing people that this will be as easy to manage as their AD/Exchange environment. What is needed is a bootable ISO that you can burn to a CD. The CD would boot and let you install Linux, Tomcat, J2RE, Scalix web access, Scalix server, and anything else that is needed using a menu driven interface. All configurations should have some kind of intuitive graphical interface, although having the CLI is still good for automating tasks. Otherwise, you're looking at a whole day's labor using a skill set that is most likely not available from in-house or will be expensive to hire and maintain. This is what would be expected as an Exchange replacement. The reality is that CIOs and IT directors want things as simple as possible to make it manageable by their existing staff. Having the Linux included is very important because it will eliminate the need to buy Redhat Enterprise server (which is about $1500 a year for maintenance) vs. an existing Windows 2003 server with a one time licensing fee of $500. The support model for Windows or Exchange is $250 per incident and that is extremely attractive to companies. These are critical issues, but they're not something you can't correct.

Note that this was the most critical part of my letter to Scalix. By no means do I think that Scalix is not a serious threat to Microsoft Exchange, even in its current form. I don't believe Scalix is so much a threat to Outlook, since it clearly seeks to serve that market with its Scalix plug-in for Outlook. Julie Farris replied with a thoughtful response by admitting some weakness in user friendliness of the backend and said that they would seek to rectify it in future.

The bottom line is that Scalix in its current state is very impressive but has some flaws. However, Scalix in its promised state should make Microsoft management quake in their boots if it's not already doing so. If Scalix will deliver on its promises for a more manageable backend and some other enchancements, it has the potential to put a serious dent in the e-mail/groupware market. Microsoft, on the other hand, will be feeling the pressure soon, if it isn't already. Microsoft might even be pressured to reverse its decision not to release the next version of Exchange in 2006 and to reverse its decision to not convert its database backend to SQL. Microsoft might even be pressured to improve its older versions of Outlook for versions 2000 and 2002. If all this pans out, the customer wins no matter which solution they choose.

Topic: Microsoft

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  • Client side technology

    George, I have been follwing your blogs with an interest in the client-side technology.
    From their website..

    ..Scalix Web Access utilizes the latest standards-based technologies, including DHTML, XML, and SOAP, to achieve the performance, look-and-feel and functionality of a modern desktop application. No Java or browser plug-ins are required to provide snappy performance typically only associated with desktop applications.....

    The Mozilla browsers have a new built in HTTP request/response and XML DOM functionality that mimics the activeX equivalents of IE.
    I have used the latter extensively over the years and might be porting code for Mozilla for a current project that's still in development.
    Are they using the activeX components for the IE implementation?
    If not, what are they using?


    • I'm not sure what they're using

      I'm not sure what Scalix is using for the client-end, but it's very impressive. It sounds like you probably know more about programming than I do so you'll have to educate me on what they're using. I know that they're not using ActiveX or Java. Whatever it is, it sets a new standard that all should follow.
      • I must have a look sometime

        I don't the time to download the evaluation at the moment.
        I have been using IE with it's acticeX HTTP and XML objects for background processing (SOAP to webservice and rendering the retuned XML payload with DHTML and XSL).

        Mozilla now has the same functionality which is great.
        I would love to show you an example but we're not ready yet (very soon) unless you can get us some publicity for a workflow based project management web app :-)
        We've done the client for IE but if we get funding I plan to port the code to mozilla.

        I wonder if they are using a mozilla library for IE?

        Very interesting.

        • Depends on news worthiness

          If you have something unique and news worthy, sure I?ll post something about it.
      • It's OddPost

        Before Oddpost was acquired by Yahoo!, it licensed the sourcecode to a number of vendors, including VisNetic and Scalix. Most of the engineering talent at Scalix are back-end folks.
  • Scalix

    I was genuinely interested in this article with the hype lead in suggestion by the writer that it was a "serious contender."
    Alas, once I read this line; "Even a happy Scalix customer, who posted this response to my original blog, admitted that Scalix wasn?t for everyone."
    I closed the article immediately and considered the solution as just a want to be like all the rest before it.
    The product HAS TO BE for everyone or it cannot be a serious contender!

    • Scalix

      Many times things are a real threat much before
      people realize it, and before matching all
      requirements to be qualified as such. If a piece
      of software is really well designed, works well
      and reflects people needs not covered by other
      apps, having the only serious lack of not having
      a decent GUI admin tool, then the article makes

      If the command line admin tools are fully
      functional and efective, +80% of the admin
      interface development is done, since at this
      point it doesn't take too much effort to develop
      just a GUI tool acting as a middle component
      which translates clicks into command line
      options. If the app really rocks and additionally
      fills a gap, probably somebody (and even more
      than one in parallel) will write such GUIs, and I
      am not sure if I should say 'write', taking into
      account how easy is to use GUI builders today.

      A very good example is CD burning under unix-like
      systems systems using cdrecord.
      • You're right

        All products have PROs and CONs. Scalix happens to be stronger in some aspects while lacking a complete administration GUI. They have promised to fix this in future releases. Microsoft has made Exchange relatively easy to administrate, although it has some weaknesses that I mentioned.

        The question now is who is going to fill their Gaps first. The good news now is that we have competition so that the consumer will end up with better cheaper products no matter what solution they choose.
    • Don't be so short sighted

      If you don't even bother to read the entire blog, it's easy to miss the point. I clearly define the strengths and weaknesses of both products. If we were to score this on a point bases, the two solutions would be neck and neck which clearly makes it a contender. The question is who will fix their weaknesses first? Scalix has already said that they intend to fix their shortcomings, I haven?t heard from Microsoft.

      This isn?t an MS bashing article and I?ve often been accused of being an MS shill in the past. This is meant to be fair and thoughtful.
  • Replacing OWA

    I wonder if the SWA client could replace the OWN client without replacing the Exchange server. My users find OWA lacking in alot of functionality. Most notably being able to select a personal contact(s) when using the TO: button. This only allows you to do a find on the GAL. (Microsoft says this is the most requested function but that it is still not included in OWA2003) And 2nd being able to drag/drop an email from the Inbox to a Public folder. There is a KB on this and there is no resolution.

    I have noticed that with Firefox, using OWA is quicker, but as you stated, its limited.

    Rant On:
    And a complaint that I have is, can't there be a discussion about a product without the anti-Microsoft zealots constantly bitching about MS? Just have a competent discussion about the product, not a MS bashing party. There are pros and cons to all discussions and all products. Lets list them and educate all of us. None of us can be experts on all products and we have to rely upon each other for non-biased information to make business decisions. I cant see myself going to the CEO and telling him that we are going to put Linux on the desktop just because I dont like Microsoft.
    Ok, rant off.

    • Rant

      Sorry for the Rant but it was about the talkback messages in the orig story and not this one.

      I get tired of seeing it and when I do I tend to move on to another site. But this product has some great possibilities especially if it can be a mix and match solution such as SWA with Exchange instead of using OWA.

      Sorry again,
      • It's ok

        ..I get tired of seeing it [bashing] and when I do I tend to move on to another site..

        Look at it from another perspective.
        The knee-jerk ABM crowd are so consumed that they will never 'make it' from an engineering perspective.
        Less competition for you and me?

        I am particularly interested in the client-side of this product.
        Scalix have raised the standard for web apps.
        Let's see how MS and others react.

        • I like your attitudes.

          Although I did kind of rant on in another part of this thread.
  • Samsung Contact

    I don't know if you're aware, but this is based on HP Openmail, which Samsung has licensed just as Scalix has. Scalix seems to have done some added features to it web interface, but it's essentially the same backend, and Samsung came to market first.

    I run Samsung, and I'm pretty happy with it. The main things my users noticed was that first it's a bit slower to run the Outlook client, and that some of the grouping options didn't work right.

    Also, I wonder if Scalix has fixed the problem of having Emails showing attachments that aren't there because of RFC formatting.
  • No need to be linux guru

    I installed a trial version on an Acer laptop with Fedora Core 3 in about 20 minutes. This included Tomcat and JR2E. Sure, Tomcat and JR2E needed some additional configuration, but after 2 clicks on Google I had the info. The difference is that people who use Linux are used to reading instructions, not just point and click on "Next, Next, Cancel, Reboot Now, Are You Sure ...... " I have only been using the trial version for a week or so, but I'm VERY impressed. I hope they never bundle the OS, etc etc on one CD. That would be a waste of time and resource.
    • That attitude never wins any customers

      I know there are some good Linux distributions out there, but most corporations will likely choose to use Redhat standard edition with an annual maintenance cost of $1500. Bundling your own Linux as an optional standard install and supporting it makes it cheaper to support from the vendor's perspective. Every time a user calls your helpdesk costs money. You absolutely do want to make it as simple as "next, next, next, yes, check A B C, and then reboot". It doesn't take long to package something like that and I guarantee you that it's less work than answering setup questions at the helpdesk. I learned long ago that it?s easier spend the initial time to build something that any bone head can use so that they don?t keep bugging you. Human nature dictates that they don?t want to read FAQs, they definitely don?t want to read long confusing manuals.

      Whether one can figure it out or not the current way is irrelevant, the question is does one feel like taking to time to figure it out. I only use CLI with switches, routers, firewalls, Access Points, and other devices because it's easy to script it and generate the configurations from a database because it scales well when managing hundreds of devices, but I don't feel like doing that for a single Scalix server. Of course I want to keep the CLI for automation and scripting, but a server application like this must have a polished backend if it is to compete toe to toe with Microsoft Exchange. Every successful software application with mass appeal has one thing in common; it?s easy to use. ?Figure it out? is a sure way to give your customers the finger and convey the message that you don?t give a damn. That might win you some points in a news forum, but it doesn't win any customers.
      • Research

        Then maybe you need to do a bit more research before posting a story about a contender to Microsoft Exchange.

        1) Competitors: You didn't mention anything about Samsung Contact, Suse OpenExchange, or any other groupware systems, which is what I went looking for when I bought Samsung Contact.

        2) Ease of Use: You're asking for a 1:1 equivalent of Exchange server. Get this...some people don't want that. Samsung uses a web interface for most admin tasks. The only tasks that are scripted are maintinence and updates. Even the installer was done in a TK/TCL GUI; I'm not sure what Scalix is using, but evidently not GUI.

        3) Perceptions about Linux: I noticed a lot of information in your response and your article was spent trying to understand why the product wasn't the same as Microsoft Exchange.

        Here it is: It isn't Microsoft. Stop applying the same ideology, the same logic, and the same constants to Linux and it's software.

        Linux is different. It does require you to show some active involvement in how your computer works. The problem is, Gates made computers "rock simple" for anyone to use, but not to properly operate.

        Reading material on Linux is a good idea for any user, whether they are tech smart or not. The vast amount of information available both in print and online can help any new user be more comfortable with Linux.

        It's articles and responses like this one that make Linux adoption that much harder.
        • I don't have the power to slow Linux adoption

          It's absurd that you think that I have any power to slow Linux adoption. I'm just the messenger telling you what Microsoft Exchange admins think about the lack of a completed GUI. If anyone is slowing the adoption of Linux, it's attitudes like yours that turns off a lot of the masses since you expect them to meet you most of the way rather than you going to where they are. You can scream about those ?stupid? Microsoft users all you like but they?re not going to see things your way and they?re not going to come over to your camp if you maintain your elitist attitude.

          If a company is only after the *nix user base, then it's perfectly fine to have a "figure it out yourself" attitude since it's generally accepted in that culture. But if a company is after the Exchange market share, they absolutely have to cater to the existing user's expectations and requirements or risk being ignored by the masses.
        • You've missed the boat

          Your post totally misses the boat. The problem is that your attitude is the prevailing view throughout the developer community. I will agree with you that many of Micro$oft's products leave much to be desired feature wise, are poorly engineered, and we won't even get into security. But you know something? CUSTOMERS -- (you know, the people who ultimately PAY developers' salaries?) don't give a rat's butt about the points you make. AND THEY SHOULDN'T HAVE TO.

          We're talking about fundamentally a mail server. Why in blue blazes should a business owner have to understand f'ing Linux to set up a stinking mail server? (Are you feeling the customers' perspective here yet?). The problem is that far too many developers have your platform-zealot, technofacist attitude (your moniker says it all -- really proud of our alleged intellect, aren't we?). The real problem is you and developers who adopt your positions. Why should someone who just wants to set up mail have to be "comfortable with f'ing Linux (or Windows, or Unix, etc)?!? Is that knowledge going to make them more productive? No! Getting their mail server set up as quickly and easily as possible will though.

          As developers, our purpose is to create software solutions for our users. It is OUR job to understand the nuances of operating systems, and software development -- NOT YOUR USERS! I would submit it takes a LOT more engineering and design effort to create software that DON'T require the user to have an understanding of the system than it does to make software that requires a user to go through an O'Reilly book before they can set up their friggin email!

          That's why our user interface design paradigm has an acronym -- AFCDI, which stands for "Any Fool Can Do It". We have been following that paradigm for over 10 years, and the response we get from our clients indicates that we are on the right track. My clients aside, consider the Mac -- the platform of choice for nontechies everywhere. Is it just stupidity, or platform zealotry that makes these people CONTINUALLY pay 50 - 75% MORE for technology solutions -- or could it just be that they place more value on the time it takes to deal with software that requires a user to "get comfortable" with the operating system -- and are willing to pay for it.

          One more thing, before you dismiss this as some Mac fanatic's diatribe -- I've been developing solutions on Unix for 25 years, Windows for 17, Linux for 5, along with other kernels like QNX, pSOS, and PalmOS. I mention this not to imply that I'm smarter than you (whether I am or not is irrelevant), but to make sure you understand that as a developer, you have to look at your work from the perspective of those who will wind up using it.
  • What about Stalker's CommuniGate Pro?


    First, I enjoy your weblog and have the RSS feed in my aggregate. Keep it up!

    Second, I was wondering if you had done any past research on alternatives to Exchange such as CommuniGate Pro from Stalker Software?

    I've looked at the MAPI support from Stalker in the past but was curious if you had come across it in your test plans.