Can VMware put a dent in Microsoft Exchange?

Challengers to Microsoft Outlook and Exchange come and go, but VMware may have a winner with its new Zimbra appliance

I was always a fan of Zimbra, an email solution that combined an open source mail server with a wildly innovative, browser-based client that has all the features of a collaborative document management system. Zimbra, which has a client that can run offline, treats email as the hub of the user's worklife -- and throws in all sorts of XML goodies, including little Zimlet widgets for lightweight integration with other systems.

Founded in 2003, Zimbra (the company) was bought in 2007 by Yahoo, which at the time thought Zimbra could be instrumental in competing with Google apps. Then Yahoo went through the turmoil of the Microsoft takeover bid and CEO switch, and I feared that might be the last I would ever hear of Zimbra. But five months ago, Zimbra was bought by VMware.

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With today's announcement of a Zimbra Collaboration Suite Appliance, VMware might have a bona fide Exchange killer on its hands.

The appliance is an interesting play. Zimbra Collaboration Suite is still available as cloud offering, but the appliance option addresses the large chunk of business customers that remain wary of ceding email to the cloud. Plus, the appliance is intended to reduce switching and ownership costs by making deployment and maintenance a snap. If Zimbra can pull that off, it will certainly have a leg up on Exchange.

The appliance runs vSphere inside, which simplifies high availability, backup, and disaster recovery. Ubuntu runs under the Zimbra Collaboration Suite, but it's essentially embedded and invisible, so no Linux skills are required. The appliance supports up to 1,000 mailboxes, features Active Directory integration, and of course makes migration from Exchange as simple as possible. Direct comparisons are complicated by VMware claims that its appliance solution costs between 35 and 50 percent less than Exchange.

Another selling point is that the Zimbra client works across a wide range of devices, including BlackBerry, iPhone, and Android, with synchronization maintained across multiple clients. You can also use Outlook as a client if you prefer.

According to VMware, Zimbra already has over 55 million mailboxes in operation (much of those maintained by service providers or deployed in the education market). It's a little odd thinking of VMware as an application company, but with VMware sales and support backing Zimbra, I think this challenge to Exchange has some real possibilities.

This article, "Can VMware put a dent in Microsoft Exchange?" originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog and get a digest of the key stories each day in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter and on your mobile device at infoworldmobile.com.

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