TechWorld

Spotlight on open source for business: Adam Williams on OpenGroupware.org

A developer from the OpenGroupware.org community explains that this Open Source groupware project is more than the sum of its parts

OpenGroupware.org is relatively unknown outside the Open Source developer scene, yet it's one of the oldest projects around: This groupware has origins dating back to 1996.

OpenGroupware.org is also one of the most expansive communities in Open Source. It serves as an umbrella organization for several inter-related projects. The major ones include:

The OpenGroupware.org groupware server ("OGo") is a feature-rich groupware server designed for Small and Medium Businesses (SMBs). OGo has the features required to satisfy power users and the extensibility for developers to create applications, such as CRM and workflow, using OGo as a groupware platform.

Scalable OGo ("SOGo") focuses on delivering basic groupware functionality and applications, like simple calendars and address books, for up to 20,000 users. SOGo supports Mozilla Thunderbird and Calendar.

SOPE is an Objective-C application framework and Web application server. JOPE is a re-implementation of many of the ideas of SOPE in Java. Both OGo and SOGo are built on SOPE.

There are about 30 core members actively involved in the overall OpenGroupware.org community. Some of these individuals who work on OGo -- and most on SOGo -- do so as full-time developers. (An enterprise distribution of OGo is sold under the name SKYRiX.)

We spoke with Adam Williams to enlighten us on this scene. Williams contributes to several OpenGroupware.org projects, and he works as a groupware consultant through his own business, Whitemice Consulting.

What is the exact nature of the behind-the-scenes relationship between SKYRiX and OpenGroupware.org? It looks to be similar to Sun's StarOffice with its open source counterpart, OpenOffice.org, but what are the significant differences?

OpenOffice.org is a much larger community than the OpenGroupware.org community, and Sun is a much larger company than SKYRiX, so the projects cannot meaningfully be compared. SKYRiX is a small company which works together with a few other companies on the development of OGo [OpenGroupware.org].

OGo is a very open project and SKYRiX places very few restrictions on OGo's development. Contributors to OGo do not need to assign copyrights to SKYRiX. The most active members of the OGo community are not employed by SKYRiX, although a few occasionally do paid work for SKYRiX customers.

What is the state of the groupware market today? Other than for OpenGroupware.org being an open source alternative, how does your organization see it fitting into this market?

The FOSS marketplace is crowded. In part, this results from the nebulous definition: "groupware" can be defined quite differently, and different kinds of organizations have different needs.

This is represented even within the OpenGroupware.org project itself. Scalable OGo [SOGo] is designed to provide, to very large groups, the basic functionality that most end users expect from a groupware solution. This means the same functionality that they would have when using Microsoft Outlook with Exchange: address books and shared calendars. SOGo also provides straight-forward mobile device support.

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OGo, on the other hand, is a much more complicated application. OGo provides the expected contact management and scheduling applications, as well, but it also supports flexible access control, task workflow, projects, and document management. OGo's XML-RPC API enables developers to build custom applications around the groupware server.

These two OpenGroupware.org projects focus on two specific portions of the groupware space: large groups needing core functionality, and SMBs or other organizations needing a rich and sophisticated groupware platform.

We do not consider other free software projects to be competitors. Most do not focus on the two areas of the market that the OpenGroupware.org project does. We do not believe there is another FOSS project that can provide the scalability of SOGo, or the feature completeness and extensibility of OGo.

Open Source projects can also collaborate with each other and share technologies; GroupDAV is an excellent example of this. The GroupDAV protocol was incubated by the OpenGroupware.org project, but is now implemented by other projects such as Citadel and Horde. The more servers support GroupDAV, the more clients will do so, which in turn helps OpenGroupware.org users -- a rising tide lifts all boats.

Open Source solutions still face many doubts in the Enterprise market. What would you say are the major doubts that OpenGroupware.org has come up against in this market?

OpenGroupware.org's two server projects focus on different problem domains: SOGo for large user bases and OGo on the SMB space. Large organizations require custom solutions in any case, and the SMB can reduce development costs and time by building custom solutions around the OGo platform. Due to the focus of these two packages, the [OpenGroupware.org] project seldom deals with what is traditionally considered "the Enterprise" -- large corporations with 1,000 to 10,000 users.

In Europe, Open Source on the server is well established and FOSS is usually not a problem, as long as it fills the requirements of the users. In the United States, Microsoft Exchange is almost pervasive, but there are sites using OGo and building interesting applications.

Of course, OpenGroupware.org is free, but what would you say are the reasons why a business should consider using it over other, Enterprise solutions, including SKYRiX?

SKYRiX's product is OGo with the addition of load-balancing technology and Oracle support. Setting aside those two factors, OGo and SKYRiX are identical. They are the same code. SKYRiX provides a pre-packaged and supported version of OGo. If a customer requires Oracle support, or wants a supported package, they should consider using the SKYRiX-branded OGo. If a customer can support themselves, or obtain OGo support elsewhere, then they can just download OGo.

Of course, the key advantage of OGo and SOGo over proprietary solutions is that they are open. If you need to extend the functionality in some direction, you are free to do so. We also believe these two products are quite unique in the areas of the groupware space that they target.

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How has the Enterprise market reacted toward OpenGroupware.org, so far?

OGo has been well received by its target market: those wanting to add a robust groupware featureset to their Intranet and in-house applications.

SOGo is still pretty new, but it is used by some very large hosting facilities. Given that SOGo targets central groupware applications -- share calendars and address books -- and provides good connectors, it is currently attracting a lot of interest.

Let's say one decided to quickly move their groupware solution from Exchange to OGo -- over a weekend, for example. What kind of changes would end users notice on Monday morning? Would there be much of a problem for them to re-adjust to this new groupware system?

Most Outlook users would probably notice very little difference. The basic functionality of address books and calendars is more or less the same. Some "advanced" Exchange-plus-Outlook features would be lost, such as Outlook Forms. I'm not aware of any Open Source platform that supports Outlook Forms.

Obviously, the Web interface would be different, and mobile device support works somewhat differently. I doubt most end users would need much adjustment. But it all depends on what features of Exchange a site was exercising. Users would gain document management capabilities not offered by Exchange.

What technologies have been difficult to implement into OpenGroupware.org, whether technically or due to proprietary restrictions? How have you overcome this (or have you)?

Clearly the interoperability with Microsoft products, specifically Microsoft Outlook. MAPI and other proprietary Microsoft technologies are a constant issue.

What are your initial thoughts about Microsoft's recent release of its protocol specifications? Does it look like this will this help you guys?

I haven't read the agreement, but I know that it does not cover collaboration protocols like calendar sharing, etc.. So I do not believe the agreement is relevant to the groupware space.

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What new features are in active development for future versions of OpenGroupware.org?

There is a great deal of effort being put into SOGo, improving its Mozilla application connectors, and developing an Outlook connector.

A port of OGo is underway from SOPE (Objective-C) to JOPE (Java). The OGo Web interface receives a steady stream of enhancements, as does the server's functional core, known as "Logic". Recently, an improved XML-RPC API, known as "zOGI", was added to OGo, and that is [being] continuously improved as well. Work on a new Web interface for OGo is in the the very early stages.

There is also a constellation of related projects, including the GroupDAV connector for Funambol and Consonance, which is a .NET/Gtk# client for the OGo.

Does OGo feature any kind of integration with social network sites? For example, if you have a friend on LinkedIn, can you easily grab that person's contact info for your e-mail address book? LinkedIn has an export service, so how easy is the importing on the OGo side?

OGo can import data from the traditional tab- and comma-separated files, as well as vCards.If your data import needs are straightforward, the features provided by the Web UI should suffice. If you need something more sophisticated, writing import scripts with Perl, Python, or your favorite scripting language is very easy.

My experience with the SMB space is that organizations usually need something more than stock tools to import their data. You don't want to lose key relationships, [like] a contacts association to a company, and meta data-like permissions is critical.

Groupware and social networking are actually worlds apart, despite superficial similarities. They address entirely different markets and needs. For instance, how many social networking sites provide document versioning? Or detect scheduling conflicts? I'm not aware of anyone directly integrating OGo with a social networking service. On the other hand, mash-ups with services like Address Meister, XMPP, and Google Maps are pretty elementary.

For you personally, as a developer, what's been most rewarding about working on OpenGroupware.org?

My own focus has been on improving OGo as a development platform. It is really enjoyable to be able to focus on the functionality of the application rather than the tedium of things like database connectivity, implementing access control, tracking changes, etc..In addition, your application inherits interoperability with everything else in the OpenGroupware.org universe.

Personally, I've learned an immense amount while working on OpenGroupware.org; the key developers know their stuff. It is a very pleasant community to work with.