Tim Goree

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My Favorite E-mail System is Open Source

As published in the DataBus, Summer 2010 Volume 2010 Issue 3...

When I came to the Norris School District in late 2006, I found myself in a unique position. My reasons for taking the position were more personal than professional. I looked forward to driving only 2 minutes to get to work, as well as working in the district in which my own children attended. Where the adjustment came was in the fact that Norris was almost 100% Macintosh on both the client and the server side. I had worked for 16 years before that in almost exclusively Microsoft environments, so this, I knew, would be a considerable change. 

My e-mail administration experience up to that point had been with Microsoft Exchange 5.5 - 2003. One of my first tasks in the new position became one of unifying two separate e-mail systems. That's right - there were two! Both were administered by our county office of education, but one was for outside communications, and the other was for inside the district communications. Both used different clients, too. It wasn't anyone in our district that was asking me to unify our e-mail, though, it was a task I put on myself. After getting used to Exchange with the Outlook client for so many years, the two e-mail system environment had me completely discombobulated! This was simply a move that I needed to make for my own sanity's sake. I was hoping that our staff would love me for it in the end. 

So what does one do when he has Microsoft Exchange experience and nothing but Macs? I had a big decision to make. Anyone who has worked in a Microsoft Active Directory environment knows that a move to Exchange would ultimately be a move to an Active Directory structure followed by an all Microsoft environment on the back end, and if you have an all Microsoft back end, well, it would seem pretty silly to have an all Mac client environment. That's just how it tends to play out. As comfortable for me as a move like that would have been, I had also always adhered to the idea that standardization of systems on the client side was highly advantageous so long as the people using those clients were satisfied with the situation. In this case, our staff was not only satisfied, they seemed downright giddy to have Macs sitting on their desks, and I wasn't about to move in a direction that would downgrade that giddiness to something less desirable. 

It didn't take long for me to realize, as I learned more about the Mac on my desk, that Mac OS X is built on Open Source Software. It is a very close cousin to Linux on the desktop and works with Linux on the back end very seamlessly. My thoughts turned to Free Open Source e-mail server software, and we soon found a product call Zimbra (http://zimbra.com). 

Zimbra and I found ourselves in an excellent relationship immediately. Being one of the first to use AJAX effectively for its web client produced impressive results. The first time I worked with a demo, I fell in love with the idea that I could have a web client that was nearly as robust and feature rich as the full Outlook client. Obviously, the upside of the web client would be that when we changed systems, my staff and I wouldn't have to install client software on all of our district computers, and our users could have the same e-mail client experience at home as they could at work, regardless of their operating system differences. 

We moved forward and we haven't looked back. Since first installing Zimbra, we have run it on both Mac OS X Server and Ubuntu Server. In that time, its company ownership has changed hands twice, from being an independent company to being owned by Yahoo! (who uses Zimbra as it's engine for Yahoo! Mail) and now VMWare (who sees it as an integral part of its future productivity suite). We have always paid for support with this product, and we've had excellent experiences both with the Zimbra team in that regard as well as our current support team, Revolution Linux (http://revolutionlinux.com/). 

I can say with confidence that Zimbra is rock-solid. From the standpoint of administration, it is worlds easier to deal with on a day to day basis than Microsoft Exchange 2003. Most importantly, however, Zimbra was my first foray into FOSS, and the positive experience has launched our district in a healthy direction going forward. 

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Tim Goree is the Director of Technology Services for the Norris School District in Bakersfield, California (tigoree@norris.k12.ca.us). He has 20 years of IT experience, with 14 of those years being specific to education. As a member of the CETPA Board of Directors as well as the KernCUE Board of Directors, Tim is well known for his ability to bring IT staff and educators together ideologically to produce outstanding educational results.