Clear OS – An Alternative to SBS?

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Part four of a six part series looking at ClearOS, one of the major commercial alternatives to Small Business Server.  In this post I look at the messaging server, Zarafa.  Be sure to read part one for an overview of ClearOS and part two for an introduction to the installation process. Part three looks at the domain and file sharing.

Part Four: Messaging.

One current source of debate amongst Managed Service Providers is messaging solutions and the cloud.  With the Small Business Server product line being canceled, many IT Professional are looking for an on premises alternative to Exchange Server.  ClearOs includes Zarafa as a messaging soloution.  The Zarafa messaging suite installs from the Marketplace, and I had installed it during the server setup.  Zarafa supports the MAPI protocol.  A client is required for the Outlook client and can be downloaded from Zarafa website.  Setup is what you would expect, create a new profile, choose ‘other sever type’ Zarafa.

Outlook 2010 and Outlook 2007 worked out of the box.  The most important aspect that I found was that single sign on works, exactly as it does with Outlook and Exchange.  The solution is completely LDAP integrated.  If the user changes their password for their computer log in, it does not need to be changed anywhere in the Outlook client. Features that you expect from the messaging platform, including Free Busy, Public Folders and resources scheduling are all available and work as expected.

Public folder setup was not as intuitive as I would have liked.  I had to open a shell on the ClearOS server and create the public folder store manually.  This can only be done from the shell, not the Web Interface.  ClearOS has indicated that this is now a feature request as this should be available from the web interface.

After creating the Public Folder store, the public folder tree appeared in the webmail interface.  If you have already created an Outlook Profile before you created the public folder store, you will need to remove the Outlook profile and recreate it.  Once the Public Folder tree was visible in Outlook, I was able to right click, and create the ‘HR’ Calendar.  Right clicking on my calendar allowed me to set permissions based on the Global Address list, including distribution groups, just as you would if there was an Exchange server on the back end.

You must enable the Public Folder to enable the Free Busy information to be shared.  The Free/Busy information is published by the Outlook Client, and shared in a hidden Public Folder.  If you don’t enable public folders before you set up the Outlook profile, your appointment will need to be recreated.

The final aspect to look at in the Outlook client is Offline usage.  When opening Outlook while it is disconnected from the network, you are still able to open, read, and queue messages for delivery when you are reconnected.  The end use experience is seamless when working offline.  If you are on a laptop that is connected to the Internet, opening port 237 in the firewall allows you to work from outside the network, similar to Outlook Anywhere functionality in Exchange.

Overall there is very little configuration in the ClearOs web panel for Zarafa.  The webmail interface is based off of the configuration URL, so you will want to install a valid SSL cert (use the SSL tool from the MarketPlace, of course).  Ensuring that there is a valid SSL cert also allows your Outlook client connection to be encrypted as well.  Once you create the public folder store, free busy works as expected as does the global address list.  The end user would have no idea that the backed for this is not Exchange, but Zarafa instead.  ClearOS does a remarkable job integrating the messaging platform into their server solution.

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