Open-Source Collaboration

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Collaboration Col*lab`o*ra"tion, n.

1. The act of working together; united labor.

1913 Webster

Collaboration isn't a new idea, and (almost) everyone will agree that the greatest accomplishments come through its employment. We have only to look at NASA's quest for the moon to see the perfect example. While the early space pioneers had a struggle with the manual exchange of paper documents and phone calls, we are blessed with today's terrific communications and computing technologies and the software to make it easy to collaborate on any project, no matter how big or how small.

An Easy Choice

Many firms are heavily invested in Microsoft's products, so Microsoft Exchange Server is an easy choice for them. Likewise, IBM-centric sites tend toward Lotus Notes/Domino—and for good reason; it's the ultimate suite for collaboration. Both of these products, while superb for what they are designed to do, are sometimes too expensive (in licensing costs, support costs, hardware costs, or feature lists) to justify. So what are you supposed to do if you have modest requirements or budgets for collaboration software? Look for help from the epitome of collaboration, the open-source community. There is a metric boatload of open-source choices, and the toughest part can be narrowing down the list to something manageable.

Define Your Requirements

Unfortunately, the definition of collaboration software is very broad. Wikipedia, which is built with collaborative software, has an entry on the genre:

Skip Ellis defined groupware as "computer-based systems that support groups of people engaged in a common task (or goal) and that provide an interface to a shared environment". It is also known as Collaborative software. It is the basis for computer supported cooperative work.

Such different software systems like mail, calendaring, chat, wiki belong into this category. It has been suggested that Metcalfe's law -- the more people who use it the more valuable it becomes -- applies to such software.

Ask any computer professional what package he uses for collaboration, and as the answer you're as likely to get an example of a content management system as you are an example of some kind of calendaring software. Ask a group of professionals, and the answers will be all over the place. Thus, your first step to collaborative Nirvana is the same as any other: Define your requirements.

Are you looking to manage a collection of documents with a document management system? Are problems surrounding the scheduling of people, places, or things causing you to look for a calendaring solution? Perhaps you want a collaborative Web site, such as Wikipedia, and thus need a wiki. You really have to take the time to define what you want the software to do if want to maximize your chances of success with an open-source package. More important than what you want it to do is what your users want it to do.

One of the truisms I've learned over the years is that users' expectations grow exponentially with the number of different departments represented by those users. A package that will be implemented by a single department, such as accounting or engineering, is easier to select than one that will be used by many departments, simply because software written for the needs of one department will use a work flow and vernacular tailored to that department. Make sure that you enlist representatives from all departments involved in your collaborative venture so that you get a thorough list of desired features.

An Itch to Scratch

If the message from the last section seems obvious (and if you're a seasoned technical manager, it should), you may be wondering why I even brought it up. I did so because I'm concerned that you may be a tech manager who is used to software provided by the large, commercial firms (e.g., Microsoft or IBM) but isn't particularly familiar with open-source software (excluding the more famous examples, such as the Apache Web Server). If that describes you, then you may not realize that there can be significant differences in scope and design between commercial and open-source software.

Remember, the basic tenet of open-source software is that it exists because some programmer had an itch to scratch, took it upon himself to start a project to scratch the itch, and released the results to the world, thereby attracting others with similar interests. You should have no expectations that the authors of a given project have the corporate experience that would broaden their design to something suitable for your users.

Contrast this with commercially available software, designed and written by people with access to tons of market research and oodles of corporate experience, and you can see my concern. You'll frequently find that a project that initially appears attractive may be too narrow in scope to fulfill your users' requirements. Knowing exactly what they want to accomplish will give you a head start in separating the wheat from the chaff and will save you time in the end.

Now, this is not to say that a project is somehow deficient because it is open source. Many open-source programmers have been in the game for a long time, have worked at multi-national corporations, and have produced software that easily rivals the commercial stuff. I'm just ensuring that you go wading into the open-source waters with the right attitude. I can virtually guarantee that you can find a suitable open-source product that will do what you want, as long as you are willing to do your homework.

Pass Muster

Freshmeat and Sourceforge have long been my favorite markets for open-source software. When I searched these sites, I got a large number of hits when I did searches on the terms "groupware," "CMS," and "calendars." While the results were informative, the list provided me with a relatively low signal-to-noise level (read: lots of uninteresting stuff). A search on Google proved to be much more fruitful.

A good metric that I use when evaluating open-source software is to look at its Web site. Does it look good? (Sure, that may be superficial, but it is indicative of the effort put into the project.) Is it up-to-date, and does there appear to be life behind the facade? Does the site have an online demo set up so that potential users can try the application before committing to a local installation? My Google search yielded some sites that pass muster on those criteria, and I'd like to share them with you, not to endorse them but to show you the possibilities.

Real, Live Humans

The first two sites that I'll mention aim to provide a substitute for a Microsoft Exchange Server installation. If you don't relish the installation of a Windows Server so that you can host an instance of Exchange, then one of these two may work for you. Both of these are examples of what I call "hybrid-source software," which people who don't understand how companies make money with open-source software find understandable.

The premise of hybrid-source is that there is a base product available for free, which users can download and use without any obligation to the project sponsor. Support for the base product is provided by the community of users (like other open-source software), and for many, the base product's features are sufficient. To meet corporate requirements, such as integration with MS Outlook or commercial support, users can purchase a commercial edition from the sponsoring company, which will provide real, live humans for technical support.

The two projects, Open-Xchange and Zimbra, both have good-to-excellent Web sites and offer online demonstrations, which is really handy since you can send your users there for a quick demonstration. Open-Xchange adds the additional touch of making available a VMWare virtual appliance (which I described earlier this month), making an internal demonstration easier and more specific to your needs.

If you spend some time testing these products (and any others you find from your Google search), you'll note that the features you'd expect from collaboration software are in there. Zimbra's interface even features the latest hot technology, AJAX, making it seem responsive and highly usable.

I really appreciate it when sites provide a nice comparison chart showing the differences between editions. Zimbra provides such a chart, and upon review, you'll note that the main differences lie in the inclusion of enterprise-level features in the "Network edition." That seems to be the case with most hybrid-ware products.

Content Management

Looking for a content management system? While I have mentioned some of them in prior articles, I think you'll be best served by visiting the opensourcecms.org site. Opensourcecms.org provides a portal to many of the fine open-source content management systems. What makes it unique is that it doesn't just have a bunch of links to the systems but is, instead, a site that provides live demonstrations of them. Besides the live demos, you'll find ratings and comments for each, so you can get some idea of each package's strengths and weaknesses. If you've ever purchased a book from Amazon.com, then you get the idea. This information is certainly useful for winnowing out the packages most interesting to you—all done in one stop and with minimal time invested. Once you have narrowed the list of candidates, you can send your users to the demos for their feedback, thus increasing the odds for their buy-in of a given product.

Once you have developed your list of candidates, visit at least one other Web site: Carnegie Mellon's CERT Web site. For those unfamiliar with it, CERT is a clearing house for Internet security vulnerabilities. On CERT, you can research your choices to see if there are any nasty surprises awaiting you. This presumes that you'll be deploying the solution to an Internet-facing host. If not, then you may not be as concerned.

Tunnel Vision

As IT professionals, we're most familiar with the products that are backed by companies with the cash to purchase advertising. That gives them mind share, which sometimes gives us a bad case of tunnel vision. My goal in this article was to get you to think outside of the Lotus/Exchange "box" for collaboration software. There are certainly great open-source solutions to our collaboration software needs. In the end, we may fall back to the well-known commercial products, and that's fine. But in this day of ever-restrictive budget constraints, we'd be remiss if we didn't investigate what the open-source market has to offer. You can save big bucks not only on the collaboration software, but also on the software you'll need to support it.

Barry L. Kline is a consultant and has been developing software on various DEC and IBM midrange platforms for over 23 years. Barry discovered Linux back in the days when it was necessary to download diskette images and source code from the Internet. Since then, he has installed Linux on hundreds of machines, where it functions as servers and workstations in iSeries and Windows networks. He co-authored the book Understanding Linux Web Hosting with Don Denoncourt. Barry can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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