Best of open source applications

Top offerings in CRM, ERP, portals, content management, and collaboration platforms

A hunger for lighter-weight and lower-cost sales and CRM applications has brought great success to SaaS vendors such as Salesforce.com, and also lifted the fortunes of open source offerings in the space. Open source ERP has had a harder time breaking out, but here too there are several impressive offerings to choose from. And if you're looking to open source for an enterprise portal, CMS, or Microsoft Exchange substitute, you will not be disappointed.

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Commercial open source pioneer SugarCRM is our top choice in CRM. Its trident of offerings – installed, hosted, and a good drop-in appliance – give IT the flexibility it needs, and the easy-to-use Ajax interface enhances user adoption. Users will also appreciate the offline client synchronization; integration with Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Word is enterprise-grade.

The proficient Sugar app is becoming polished. The recently released 5.0 beta shows off advances in charting and performance dashboards, plus a new AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) e-mail client and long-awaited field-level access controls. A new custom development kit makes it easier to develop new objects to meet vertical requirements.

Just as important, a good developer community has taken shape around SugarCRM, making a library of plug-ins and feature enhancements available for the suite – including VoIP integration.

SugarCRM has no shortage of competition from open source rivals Centric CRM, CentraView, and openCRX. The most notable of these is Java-based Centric CRM, which touts team collaboration tools for customer service and salesforce automation, as well as strong online marketing tools forged through a relationship with open source demand generation software vendor LoopFuse. A recent influx of capital from Intel won't hurt it any, either. Long dominated by big guns such as SAP and Oracle/PeopleSoft, ERP has earned a reputation for complexity, and its proximity to the revenue pipeline discourages disruption. As a result, change happens slowly in the ERP market, making it difficult for the bright lights of open source ERP -- Apache OFBiz, Compiere, ERP5, Openbravo, OpenMFG/Postbooks, and TinyERP -- to shine through.

Further, none of these open source solutions yet compares with the breadth of back office functionality, usability, and integration found in today’s SaaS offerings, such as NetSuite.

Nevertheless, from the hills of Pamplona, Spain, comes a viable if unlikely candidate for many small and midsize implementations: Openbravo. Openbravo does a fine job of managing general business duties like procurement and product pricing, warehouse and inventory management, production, and financial accounting. Its MRP (materials requirement planning) and sales/CRM modules are also good, and the capability to handle multi-phase projects and partner relationships help set it apart.

Openbravo comes up light on HR, customer-to-Web, and document management, but decent BI and balanced scorecard capability in addition to a solid Java development framework for building add-ons boost its enterprise credentials. The recent addition of the JasperReports engine lets users push out professional-looking PDF, Excel, and HTML reports.

Openbravo takes the Bossie, but also notable is Compiere. A split last year between members led to a forked faction founding the alternative ADempiere project, slowing the company momentum a bit. Nevertheless, Compiere’s point-of-sale and CRM modules make it worth a look.

We're also a fan of the Apache Open for Business (OFBiz) project, but this formidable solution is not for the technically faint of heart. OFBiz is better suited to VARs than SMEs. Another worthy offering is xTuple’s OpenMFG, a Windows-based manufacturing solution with good reporting. OpenMFG is not technically open source, as is its lighter-weight sibling PostBooks, but xTuple does provide code for in-house customization.

If there’s one IT product category that would seem to be ripest for open source solutions, it is portals, because portals exemplify standards and interoperability. By definition, enterprise portals provide a gateway to content in disparate systems and let users run applications within the portal environment. This is typically done by deploying "JSR-168 compliant" portlets (i.e., portlets compliant with the Java portlet specification) be they custom-written or acquired from a portlet vendor. 

Putting aside other standards, which our four portal finalists all follow, the compelling argument for winner Liferay Portal can be summed up by mentioning usability, architecture, security, integration, and portlets. Liferay's intuitive user experience, featuring drag-and-drop portlet arrangement and management, is tops. The latest version adds PHP and Ruby support. On the security side, enterprises can have single sign-on through Microsoft Active Directory or OpenID in addition to LDAP. There’s integration with Microsoft Exchange, an iCal calendar portlet, and full WebDAV support. Moreover, Liferay offers more than 60 portlets.

Not far behind is the widely deployed JBoss Portal, which runs on the solid and scalable JBoss Application Server. JBoss Portal supports any JDBC-compliant database and has much the same security options as Liferay. However, JBoss’ user interface still needs refinement and there are fewer downloads in JBoss’ PortletSwap catalog compared to Liferay.

Also noteworthy, uPortal is designed primarily for institutions of higher education needing a personalized view of their campus Web. Using a set of Java classes and XML/XSL documents that are tuned for schools (rather than large corporations), this solution can be viable as long as you have staff with Java expertise.

Lastly, GridSphere provides a portal framework and a core set of portlets for creating user profiles and customizing the portal’s appearance. GridSphere is maintained by a small development team and boasts strong administration features that ease deploying portlets. Plus, you can build complex portlets using visual beans and the decent GridSphere User Interface tag library.

Our champion in content management systems is Alfresco, which leads an impressive field including DotNetNuke, Drupal, Joomla, and Plone. If the open source community expects their CMSes to be taken seriously, then these applications need to stand up to the same rigorous testing as their commercial counterparts -- and they do. (Look here for the detailed results of our comparative review on Oct. 1.)

Considering ease, features, security, scalability, and management, as well as other factors such as community strength and the backing organization's support, Alfresco emerges the clear winner. In particular, Alfresco's depth in multilingual content management, scalable deployment options, breadth of built-in applications, enterprise-grade security, and superior document management put it on top.

That's not to say the others are not extensible, lack support, or can't be localized. Runner-up Plone has all these traits, though you might need to search for an add-in. As we go down the list to DotNetNuke, Joomla, and Drupal, they also have many enterprise-class characteristics. But there are clear weaknesses as well. For example, Drupal and Joomla have fewer authentication options. DotNetNuke, while a .Net application, isn't so well integrated with Microsoft Office.

Still, the open source model is clearly thriving in the content management space, with these five solutions the standard-bearers out of a list numbering well over 100. Even considering the expected support and customization costs, constructing your CMS on an open source base will give you many benefits of commercial systems – and still leave you with enough funds to add features that you couldn't normally afford.

Several open source projects attempt to implement Exchange-compatible collaboration servers, but three really stand out: Open-Xchange, Scalix, and Zimbra, each available in commercial and community editions. All three are one-stop Exchange replacements for Linux. Our winner, Scalix, isn't the most feature-rich or innovative of the three (Zimbra is), but it has what most businesses expect from a mail and collaboration platform, along with a solid enterprise pedigree. Originally based on HP OpenMail and recently acquired by Xandros (formerly Corel Linux), Scalix sports a Web-based administration interface, strong Outlook and Novell Evolution integration, POP and IMAP standard servers, and a rich, Ajax mail and calendar client.

As is the case with Open-Xchange and Zimbra, Xandros open sources Scalix's foundation while setting aside the most lucrative bits as closed source. The open source Scalix does not implement the full Outlook client feature set. However, the downloadable binary Community Edition includes licenses for 25 "premium" users, and those users can effectively use Scalix with Outlook as though they're talking to Exchange.

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