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<p><a href="http://www.open-xchange.com/header/products/openxchange_express_edition.html">Open-Xchange Express Edition</a> is a cut-down version of <a href="http://www.open-xchange.com/header/products/openxchange_server_5.html">Open-Xchange Server</a>, the company's alternative to <a href="http://reviews.zdnet.co.uk/software/enterpriseapplications/0,1000001813,39281578,00.htm">Microsoft Exchange</a>. Intended for smaller businesses, this <a href="http://reviews.zdnet.co.uk/software/os/0,1000001098,39288016,00.htm">Ubuntu</a>-based system offers collaboration via shared folders, email protected by antivirus and anti-spam, plus backup and recovery. </p>
The base price for Open-Xchange Express Edition is $899 (~£447), which covers 20 users on a one-year subscription. Additional 5-user packs cost $225 (~£112). There are more pricing details on Open-Xchange's web site.
Installation & setup The system is shipped as a ISO CD image that installs quickly and easily, either conventionally or in a virtual machine (VM). At least it does if your DHCP server is correctly configured, which ours wasn't — an errant full stop initially caused some head-scratching back at the company's support department. Once you've provided the basic information required for installation, the software takes it from there and, within a few minutes, you've got an Ubuntu-powered productivity system up and running.
From here on, you don't need to do anything at the server console — in fact, Open-Xchange's supporting video shows you how to perform all maintenance and administrative tasks via a web browser. So we fired it up in a VMware VM, gave it a static IP address via the admin console, registered the licence and were up and running in impressively short order.
The admin section allows you to configure users, groups and resources, monitor the performance of the various modules using the excellent open-source package Munin, and configure the mail and networking subsystems. You can also administer the licence key (the system connects to the vendor's site to ensure licence validity), backup and recover system configuration, as well as start and stop either individual services or the entire machine. From the logfile database we gleaned that the system is running on Ubuntu 6.06.1.
In use Users connect to the AJAX-based main user interface simply by pointing their browser at the server and logging in in the usual manner. The result is an Outlook-style view, with a tree of folders in the left panel, plus a calendar and Infobox view, while the bulk of the screen is occupied by four panes that display data from the system's quartet of main modules: email, calendar, tasks and Infostore.
The first three panes will be instantly familiar to anyone who's used a modern productivity suite, while the fourth is a folder in which you can store items, including files from your local system. You can call each Infostore collection anything you like, adding items, links or text, so it acts a catch-all bucket. It provides privacy controls and versioning that automatically creates new versions of items when they are modified. Yoy can set any version of an item to current, allowing them to roll back or forward to any version.
Because you can set privacy attributes for each item, the Infostore can prove useful for keeping track of multiple items and item types involved in a multi-person project, for example. And when users send items to each other, they can send links to documents instead of large attachments, saving bandwidth and storage space.
The other three main features work as you'd expect, with the ability to share calendars, set up meetings, search, add and assign tasks and so on. Both the contacts list and tasks can be shared, while users can also set up private lists and tasks.
The biggest feature missing from the list is email rules, or filters, which allow you to assign actions to emails based on their properties. However, Open-Xchange says it is working on this, and that the feature will be in the first service pack.
The Ajax-based interface supports drag and drop, allowing you to pull emails over to a new folder, for example. It also enables other features you might not expect from a web-based application such as auto-complete and context-sensitive menus. The auto-refresh also means that the view remains current.
However, a web browser is inevitably limited in its integration with the Windows desktop compared to a locally-run application, so it's not possible to drag items from the desktop on to the Infostore, for instance. This drawback must be balanced against the advantages of a web-based application, such as its global reach.
One final issue is date formats: the program uses US formats only, which for many are only a mild irritation; this could prove more annoying for those less familiar with them, though.
Limited features It's important to bear in mind the target audience for this package. According to Open-Xchange, it 'is targeting organisations that want a fully self contained out-of-the-box solution. Something that will install simply and then run with no fuss. Open-Xchange Server 5 [the enterprise product] is targeting customers with integration and bespoke requirements, a more custom solution to fit their more diverse need'.
In other words, there are one or two missing features. Although you get 20 licences for the Outlook integration product, OXtender for MS Outlook, that allows you to access Open-Xchange Express data from an Outlook client, you can't access information directly via Samba, Linux's version of Windows networking; nor is it possible to migrate information directly from Microsoft Exchange.
That said, this is an excellent product. It does what it says on the tin: it's easy to install and use, and is therefore suited to organisations without constant access to technicians. Such organisations don't have to be small: according to Open-Xchange, 'the product is targeted at the a range of 20 to 250 users, with testing going into the thousands of users. Most of the limits will be dependent on the specification of the chosen hardware on which the system is running'.
Although it doesn't have big-company features such as the cross-platform domain controller boasted by the full-blown product, Open-Xchange Express Edition is a lot cheaper than Microsoft Exchange and much easier and quicker to setup even than Small Business Server 2003, Microsoft's bid for this market. And its open-source roots mean that the data is stored in a MySQL database which, unlike Microsoft's product, means your data is easily accessible by other applications if required.
If you're a small or medium-sized business, Open-Xchange Express Edition is the collaboration support system that you need. We found it robust and easy to use, which means that little training will be required. The next version should be even better.