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Open source e-mail alternatives

My company is looking for a replacement for Exchange and Outlook, but we can't afford Oracle's Collaboration Suite. I'd like to use open source. I'm confused about all the e-mail alternatives out there. What's the difference between sendmail, Gmail, fusemail and Thunderbird? What would be the best for 95 users in two locations in the same city?

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You need three pieces of software: an MTA (Mail Transfer Agent), a UA (User Agent) and a database. MTA = mail gateway, UA = client, database = where the mail is stored.

Exchange, sendmail, postfix, etc are MTA servers. Exchange is also an e-mail database. Gmail, Thunderbird, Outlook, pine, elm, etc. are MTA clients.

Because Gmail is a Web-based application served remotely into your browser, you don't need an MTA or database in that case -- just an Internet connection and a Web browser.

The big question for your IT people is: How will you administer the e-mail data? That's corporate information that needs to be reliably backed up.

For all MTAs except Gmail you can put your user's e-mail on a server box, usually using IMAP or LDAP (requiring another piece of software). Then you back up the server box. For a more "hands free" admin style, just use any mail client, they all let you store mail on a desktop PC.

If you use Linux as the server box, then you get IMAP, LDAP, sendmail, server and everything for free. If you buy an expensive solution like Oracle or Microsoft (or Sun ONE), then you get this extra: workflow integration support between all tools. The main benefit is automatic calendar coordination between staff. If you don't need that feature (perhaps because you speak to each other), then that expense is unnecessary. If you do need it, then Evolution is a free e-mail client with some support, and the Mozilla Sunbird (calendar) project is heading in that direction too. It's a bit behind Thunderbird, though.

This was first published in December 2004

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