Ask RedMonk: Zimbra Thoughts

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Given that our job is analysis and advice on software and related technologies, it’s probably not terribly surprising that we’re asked to field a lot of questions on the subject. A couple a day, at a minimum.

Whether they’re from the media, software developers and firms, or end users, we’d very much like to answer them all. Regrettably, the volume makes this impossible. We therefore have to prioritize inbound requests by a variety of filters – customer, media, and so on – but I’d also like to try and pick representative questions out of the rest and answer them periodically.

In other words, I’ll answer the occasional emailed question but simply do it in public, so as to expand the potential benefits.

With that, “Ask RedMonk” is born.

Today’s question comes from an anonymous reader, who writes (edited for clarity):

I am a reader of your blog tecosystems and I have been reading about your migration from Exchange to Zimbra. I noticed on a recent entry that you moved away from Zimbra to Google Apps.

[The company] where I work as a systems administrator is thinking of moving to Zimbra instead of Exchange. We are moving to a hosted solution and I am leaning to Exchange but [others prefer] Zimbra.

I am wondering if you could take a few minutes of your time to just let me know if you really thought that Zimbra was a good product or [needs work]. I don’t like the webclient as it takes a long time to pull information using Ajax and also I am not so happy with using a connector to access email on Outlook since it is not native to outlook.

In other words if you had to [advise] someone based on your experience would you still recommend someone to migrate to Zimbra? I would like to know your opinion an appreciate any piece of advice you might have.

Now I realize that I said I’d answer the question, but of course I can’t: not specifically. I’d need a lot more information, such as a.) the desktop landscape at the firm, b.) the relative costs (do they have an EA w/ Microsoft, etc), c.) the client picture (all Outlook? mostly Outlook?), d.) the types of users, e.) the existing email solution and surrounding infrastructure, f.) the skillsets of the sysadmins, and so on.

That said, some general thoughts for those considering Zimbra versus Exchange:

  • Commercial Support:
    Obviously Microsoft is larger and more established in its commercial support staff and resources, but from our interactions, my conversations with Zimbra customers and my observations of the user forums I am not of the belief that commercial support will be a differentiator on a software basis. And given that the application is to be hosted, the real importance will be with the hosts of the given applications, as all hosts are not created equal (I would not host anything, for example, at 1and1, which provides Exchange services).

    Microsoft has a slight edge here, perhaps, because the Exchange/Outlook combination is designed to work together without the added complexity of a connector or bridge.

    That said, we’ve had issues in the past with corrupt PST/OST files, new Exchange server setup, and so on.

  • Cross-Platform:
    This has traditionally been a significant differentiator for non-Microsoft products. While Exchange delivers a very solid experience if you’re using Outlook or the Outlook Web Access on Internet Explorer, it’s far less attractive if you’re using, say, Firefox.

    If you have a mix of desktop machines, then, or want to preserve that option in future this might be worth considering. If the environment is all Windows and likely to be so indefinitely, it’s obviously less important.

  • Interoperability:
  • The concern here specifically is Zimbra ==> Outlook mail integration, but I don’t believe this to be an issue. Zimbra speaks IMAP fluently, as will Outlook, so mail should be a non-issue. What is, however, more problematic is Calendaring, and that’s whether the Connector comes in. Zimbra has worked to provide this functionality for Outlook users, and largely succeeded, but internally we had some strange issues with Connector and given that it’s a non-standard protocol it’s likely to remain somewhat flaky.

  • Maturity:
  • Is Exchange a more mature product set than Zimbra? Undoubtedly, as it’s significantly older. But the product’s maturity was never a question for us, and doesn’t seem to be for deployments of significant size so I don’t see this as a legitimate concern.

  • Multi-Tenancy:
    One of the advantages occasionally claimed by Zimbra advocates (and other Exchange competitors) is that they were designed from day one to be comfortable in multi-tenancy deployments, while Exchange and other more mature products are more client-server products bent to multi-tenant needs. There’s some truth to this from a design perspective, but this is important mostly for the systems administrator – not the end user. More specifically, I was able to manage our Zimbra instance via a fairly well designed Zimbra admin interface, while our Exchange instances were managed instead by host provided, heavily customized clients some of which were usable, and some of which were dramatically less so.
  • Performance:
    Setting aside questions of which product “scales better”, as they tend to be complicated to answer, the question is as a user of both products which performs better. The question above indicates that Outlook is the client of choice, and I’ve noticed little difference in Exchange/Outlook versus Zimbra/Outlook performance. Which of the web interfaces, then, performs better?

    The fastest loading is unquestionably the non-IE OWA client, largely because it’s functionally very limited. Of IE OWA and the cross-platform Zimbra, I’d say that OWA loads more quickly, but not by a huge margin.

    Comfort levels with the Zimbra web clients’ performance will depend largely on the type of usage. If, like me, a given user simply opens an email tab once per day and operate out of that for hours, performance is likely to be more than acceptable. If, however, Zimbra is opened and closed periodically during the day, performance will be an issue as the initial load is not quick. That said, neither is the loading of Outlook.

What about the question, “based on your experience would you still recommend someone to migrate to Zimbra?” That depends. What I can say is that I can think of no reason that Zimbra should not receive serious consideration as a potential solution – nor Google Apps, actually. From there, it merely depends on what’s a good fit for your particular organization.


  1. We have been using a hosted Exchange service for over a year now, and are considering moving to Google apps. One of the biggest problems we have run into with a hosted exchange service is the mailbox size – default size is 100MB and it gets expensive to bump that up for everyone. The recommendation is to have users auto-archive to their local machine, but that causes issues with backups and with non-primary-windows users. All the salespeople love the outlook calendaring, though, and it is nice to have default integration with so many other tools (webmeetings, etc.) We’re about to test the gcal stuff, and I am really hoping it meets our needs because it will be significantly lower cost and provide more flexibility for choice of clients. I am hoping it can’t have any worse downtime issues, either! It turns out, even the scheduled outages on an exchange server are fairly intrusive (especially for west coast users of an east-coast based datacenter.)

  2. Is this really a question of Zimbra or more simply server/client vs web based RIA?

    All good points. If I were to add anything, I’d also take into account licensing – depending on your org size, you could save a bundle with Zimbra.

    BTW, Zimbra Desktop could make this even more compelling (haven’t tried the alpha myself honestly…)

  3. I have been running Zimbra at our company and also at an external customer for about 1.5 years.
    As much as I would like to have a serious multiplatform Exchange replacement, I don´t think Zimbra is quite there yet.

    Some points I don´t like:
    * Complexity, like running 2 MySQL instances that keeps among other things mail metadata. When it gets out of sync with the mailstore (has happened), you can lose mail.
    (Have never administered Exchange so it may be even worse, I don´t know)
    * While they use some well known stable products like postfix and MySQL, for some reason they have written their own Tomcat/Java IMAP server, which is not nearly as stable as Cyrus or Courier.
    * Sending large enough mails crashes the Tomcat server. (Mailsize can be limited of course).
    * I still don´t have a complete disaster recovery procedure, except backing up the entire Zimbra installation. (That works, know from experience 🙂 )
    * Different installation packages for every version of every distribution.

    Some good things:
    * Works with all clients (tested Linux, Win, Mac OS X)
    * The Web interface might be slow, but it has a lot of features. I have personally quit using a standalone mailreader. Most people don´t frequently open and close the mail application anyway.
    * Free version available.
    * The forums are very good, Zimbra employees always helps out, even with the free version
    * Antivirus / Antispam nicely integrated.

    I would recommend people to download and try the free version, it is really simple to set up, and then try it out.
    If you decide to use it in production, I would recommend going with the non-free version so you get the possibility for single mailbox backup/restore.

  4. Zimbra is moving away from Tomcat in Z5. Also, found a useful comparison of Zimbra hosting vs. Google hosting: http://faqs.01.com/#33

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