Novell's Hula Project Leads Growing Effort To Offer Open-Source E-Mail Tools - InformationWeek

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Software // Enterprise Applications

Novell's Hula Project Leads Growing Effort To Offer Open-Source E-Mail Tools

Novell, which will face competition from Red Hat and other rivals, targets mobile devices with lightweight collaboration server.

Cell phones and PDAs are the indispensable tools of business travel, but they're still limited in their ability to conveniently connect to important data. Novell is targeting that problem with an open-source project it unveiled Tuesday to create lightweight collaboration-server software called Hula that will deliver E-mail, calendar, and address-book capabilities to client devices without the overhead of proprietary competitors such as IBM's Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange, or even Novell's own GroupWise.

"We want Hula to become to collaboration what Apache has been to Web serving," Novell chairman and CEO Jack Messman said during a keynote speech at Tuesday's LinuxWorld in Boston where he revealed the effort.

Companies that have become accustomed to GroupWise's capabilities want a lightweight collaboration tool that's open source and runs on any platform, Messman says. Hula includes more than 200,000 lines of code from Novell's NetMail collaboration-server product, which the company says has more than 4 million users. Hula will be licensed under the Mozilla Public License and the Lesser General Public License and will run on a variety of operating systems, including Linux, Windows, and Macintosh. It's expected to be available by the end of the year.

Hula could face competition right out of the gate. Rival Red Hat Inc. says it will build similar collaboration capabilities based on technology it acquired in October from America Online's Netscape unit, although a Red Hat spokeswoman says the company doesn't have a time line for delivering its collaboration server.

Novell's open-source collaboration server could provide a good fit with open-source E-mail and calendaring clients such as Mozilla Foundation's Thunderbird and Sunbird, Open Source Applications Foundation's Chandler, and Novell's Evolution. Evolution is an open-source project that Ximian Inc. began about five years ago, before being bought by Novell in August 2003, to create a groupware client similar to Microsoft Outlook. Novell will unveil a Hula road map during the next few months, although a commercial version of Hula won't be available until later this year.

Novell is committed to delivering both propriety and open-source software, despite Hula's potential to disrupt GroupWise, Messman insisted. Just as Novell has promised to continue to deliver NetWare in conjunction with SuSE Linux, the company has a road map for GroupWise that extends out at least over the next four years. GroupWise and Hula can coexist, Messman said. "We're not walking away from NetWare and we will continue to develop GroupWise."

Hula will fill the need that IT managers have to drive down the cost of maintaining collaboration applications that have become the backbone for user productivity, says Nat Friedman, Novell's VP of engineering for desktop and collaboration and a founder of Ximian, which provided open-source desktop software. Although Hula won't feature the extensive workflow capabilities of its proprietary competitors, it will let companies serve a much larger number of users with each E-mail server. Whereas 2,000 users can typically share an Exchange server, more than 100,000 users will be able to share a Hula server, Friedman says.

"IT managers are used to having commodity options in each category of software [including operating systems, directory servers, and E-mail applications], each with varying levels of maturity," says Friedman, who's managing the six Novell NetMail programmers at the core of Hula development. "One place where there's no commodity solution is collaboration."

Hula's promise to deliver Web-based E-mail and calendaring is a "really important direction statement for the future," IDC research director Al Gillen says. Hula's capabilities are also a reflection of the growing reliance users have on mobile devices. "Cell phones today can't support a rich set of collaboration functions," he says.

Besides Red Hat, additional competition will come from startup Scalix Corp., which Monday introduced version 9.2 of its E-mail and calendaring applications running on Linux. Scalix 9.2 offers E-mail administrators a browser-based graphical interface for E-mail installation, administration, and management.

The new options are emerging in the E-mail and calendaring markets, thanks to concerns over security and the way proprietary vendors lock their customers in to a constant cycle of upgrades, says Julie Hanna Farris, Scalix's founder and chief strategy officer. "As the cost of managing E-mail goes up, [users] feel locked in without alternatives because it's a mature, stable environment."

Now, IT managers need to be convinced they can trust their E-mail to an open-source project. Novell's Friedman knows the high standard they'll be held to: "If your E-mail doesn't work, your business stops."

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