Open-Sourced Groupware: Contenders for the Throne

By on February 16, 2005

If you’ve read this blog, you may have picked up on the fact that I’m a bit of an open-source advocate. I far prefer to use open-source solutions wherever possible.

By and large, open-source doesn’t get enough credit. I’ve run Linux and KDE as my primary work environment on my laptop for more than a year now. For a developer, I think KDE easily beats Windows when it comes to an efficient work environment. I now get excited for new KDE releases like I used to get excited for new video game releases.

So it should come as no suprise that I’ve been on the lookout for the open-source project that will allow me to replace Microsoft Exchange. The results so far have been disappointing.

My goals are these:

  • Needs calendaring support, including free/busy, the ability to schedule meetings, and etc.

  • Needs to support public/semi-public address books.

  • Needs to work with multiple clients, including my good buddy Kontact, Outlook, Thunderbird/Sunbird, and whatever the Mac folks use (iCal?)

  • Needs a secure, modern, decent mail transfer agent (MTA). Ideally, it would let me use an existing, proven MTA like qmail or postfix.

  • Needs to run on open standards: IMAP, LDAP, iCal, WebDAV, and their ilk.

  • A web client would be nice, but it should work well with desktop clients first and foremost.

This seems like a tall order at first, but most of the email side of things has been taken care of for years. Good MTA’s and IMAP servers are easy to find. Public address books based on LDAP are fairly plentiful as well.

But when you start talking about a calendaring system that can integrate with email and address books, things get a little more complicated.

There are a few systems out there that claim to offer solutions:

  • eGroupWare is a web-based groupware system written in PHP with ambitions of becoming an Exchange replacement. Seems nice, but currently the only client it works with is Kontact, and tries to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, a problem typical of PHP frameworks. Hint to developers: make the calendaring and email work well and work with everything before you build in the RSS reader, the Wiki and the forums.

  • is the open-source release of the SKYRiX Groupware Server. Supports Kontact, Apple iCal, and Outlook, with a plugin($$). On the down side, it seems to be a big Java operation at its core, and requires a servlet engine.Correction: a number you wrote and corrected me. OGO is not Java-based. Sorry, got my groupware crossed up. Like most of these, setup is puported to be a hassle.

  • Kolab is currently on the top of my ‘try it out’ list. Up-to-date documentation seems hard to come by, and it requires the installation of an FTP server, which seems weird to me. On the plus side, it is one of the few that’s reported to have a working Outlook plugin($$).

  • Hula was announced by Novell yesterday. It’s an open-source fork of Novell’s NetMail, and seems to have some of the Ximian folks behind it, who helped focus GNOME on ‘simple and easy to use’. Sounds promising, but no Outlook support is planned. Bad call.

All of these fall into one of two categories:

  • Web groupware that’s trying to grow itself out by connecting to desktop clients. Most of these have about a dozen crazy plugins for forums, project management, and etc.

  • Big giant closed source systems that were deemed to technically difficult, and not financially viable given Exchange’s dominance, and were dumped into the open source world.

This seems like an area that’s ripe for a simple, flexible, easy-to-use solution. A system that just tries to do the same things Exchange does (no more, no less), works everywhere it can, and provides a simple, hackable code base. Until there’s a good replacement, Exchange will never go away. That’s sad, because by most accounts, Exchange sucks.

If anyone knows of a system that’s worth looking at, or would like to dispute my evaluations of the ones above, drop me a comment.



  1. Been looking for that for ever. Does not seem to exist! I’ am sure hoping someone will post a link to the perferct open source groupware that is hidden in the inmensity of the internet.

  2. Hula does indeed look promising. Unfortunately, their official site makes it sound like there are no plans to support calendaring with Outlook. (Nat Friedman’s blog isn’t quite as negative, though.)

    Ignoring Outlook is trying to step around the elephant in the living room. Terrorism, Car Theft, and Microsoft Outlook are all part of modern life, and they all have to be dealt with in order for things to function. If Hula doesn’t work with Outlook as well as Exchange does, it will never be able to get a toehold in groupware installations with more than two or three users. If Mozilla’s Lightning turns out to be great, they may help, but I’d still put an Outlook plugin at the top of the list of things to do. I imagine someone will jump in and write one.

  3. I agree with you Joe. I generally hate Outlook, but standing on principle and not supporting it is a very bad move for your app. It is a necessary evil to get widespread adoption. Get them using your app in Outlook, and then show them that they can get the same functionality with alternative clients.

  4. OpenLDAP with IMAP server running. Almost all clients can interact with an IMAP server. Run Squirrelmail or some web alternative. And the only calendaring solution I have found that looks promising for me because I am running on OS X server, is meeting maker. Connects to LDAP and does PROXY for read/write ACL’s. There is also an outlook to meeting maker connector so the users who refuse to use the meeting maker client, which there is no reason to because it works very well, can juse use outlook. It also sync’s with PALMS and the like. MAC and PC compatible, which for me is a big plus because half of our users are Mac users including myself and my boss. Pricey but for educational it is reasonable I think.

  5. Your information on is wrong:

    “Supports Kontact, Apple iCal, and Outlook, with a plugin($$)” –

    That seems to suggest that you need a $$ plugin for Kontact and iCal as well. Its only required for Outlook.


    “On the down side, it seems to be a big Java operation at its core, and requires a servlet engine.” –

    That is utter nonsense. OGo is written in C (more exactly Objective-C) and certainly doesn’t require a servlet engine. | Which affects your conclusion: “Like most of these, setup is puported to be a hassle.”

    • this is true for Java servlet solutions, yet OGo has not a single line of Java code.

    | Installation “hardness” very much depends on your distribution. Eg OGo Debian setup is supersweet. RPM setup could be better, but then, OGo 1.0 has not yet been released (more focused on providing quality products instead of hype).

  6. I’m a fan of egroupware. I set it up using postfix as MTA, dovecot (mysql db authentication) and mysql. It flows better then any other groupware solution I’ve used. Also, it looks nice unlike a majority of them. Once they have client for outlook they should be set. Mozilla Lightning is supposed to support it. Adminstrative features are good. Haven’t used HULA yet. Seems a little bit of a barebones system now, but looks good and I do like Novell. Have you tried LIFERAY Entreprise Portal . If you like Java this looks promising. However, it might be a nightmare to install. Functionality and looks are very important if you are going to use it every day. Anyone else used Egroupware? Is there something better?

  7. OpenGroupware in the past has indeed been hard to install, particularly on some distros, but that has changed considerably as they push towards 1.0stable. Now installation is as easy as adding apt/yum repositories, and apt-get/yum install, import the db schema, and you have a working install.
    There is also NO java code, as it’s virtually all Objective-C. Since it’s so easy to setup, you ought to take a look, not much to lose if you don’t like it. 1.0a10 is pretty stable. There is also a plugin for Evolution now available.

  8. One open source groupware system you might want to check out is Citadel []. Citadel does, TODAY, much of what Hula is only promising to do a year or two from now (note that their site is peppered with the words “We want to build…”).

    It’s a standalone system — it has its own message store etc. and is VERY EASY TO INSTALL. There’s an install script which you can run right off the download website and it takes care of everything for you.

    All standard protocols are supported — IMAP, POP, SMTP, etc. There’s a web based front end, of course. Open source clients such as Kontact and Evolution are supported using GroupDAV. Outlook will be supported by the Bynari connector ($$) in late 2005.

    Give it a try!

  9. I am looking for it, too, mostly because i want an elgant way of managing my contats (I’d love that they could keep their own record up to date). Maybe Novell open xchange is nice. It is definitely fast (it is a J2EE appl) but I seems pretty tough to install.

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