Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Calendar, Email, Tasks, and Projects: The Exchange Dilemma

This week I will be teaching a class on Microsoft Outlook, and get into the features that I love so much about the program and the Exchange backend: One-stop shop. Yes, as much as I dislike the proprietary nature of Exchange, it’s nice having one application integrate everything together seamlessly. There is a reason why Outlook and Exchange is central to office life: It’s simple and easy to integrate together.

But then the harsh reality of the situation rears its ugly head: It only works for Outlook, and to a small degree Entourage. There isn’t a way to make it universal, providing contact information across platforms, devices, and distances. I am tied to the Microsoft products that currently exist out there. And while I have access to those products, I would much rather be free of any Microsoft options, if possible.

So, here are the options I have considered, and their pros and cons. These options are based on four factors:

1. Integration within the Office environment: Either it has to work with Exchange, or the server solution needs to have a free plugin for Outlook.
2. Minimal Software Install: I want to be able to install this puppy without taking too much space on my client machine. After all, I need to have space for my iTunes. ^_^
3. Simple Configuration: As I have said earlier, I don’t mind having to compile my own software, but I am basically lazy. If it doesn’t compile after an hour’s worth of trying, or if there are too many dependencies, then I’m going to move on to something else.
4. Easy Selective Access: I want my wife to be able to access some information without having to set any special settings, or access any sensitive information.

Let’s start with the Exchange Server solutions that are non-Microsoft:

Mail
Yes, that’s right, our old buddy Mail has an Exchange option. Or, more accurately, it’s a modified version of IMAP. Regardless, it still works fairly easily, with one glaring caveat: It only works for Mail. Calendar systems, Tasks, Project information, that’s all very difficult to utilize. Calendar events do show up in their own folder, but you need to try and import them, and to date I haven’t been successful in importing them into iCal.

Evolution
A quick fix for that problem is to utilize Novell’s Evolution (formerly Ximian’s Evolution), which has an Exchange feature built into it. But it’s not supported for the Mac port, and has some bugs. For information on how to get it set up, you would probably want to check out the #26 comment on this bug list. It’s not pretty getting it to install, but it didn’t take me longer than 20 minutes or so to get it set up.

So now I have a solution on the client side, but I’m the type that likes a web-based system that allows my wife to access my schedule without her actually having to log in as myself. You can’t do this with Exchange without giving her access to her own exchange account (which she doesn’t have, not having been a student of the U before), and without her having access to my account.

Google Calendar
Well, one option would be to use Google Calendar, which I am doing currently. It means that I spend all my time transferring my appointments from Exchange to Google Calendar, and then import the calendar information to iCal. This works well for my Calendar options in the short term, but it’s a lot of time transferring updates back and forth. In fact, it’s just too much time for me. I want something a little more streamlined. In order for that to happen currently, though, would require a plugin for Google Calendar to accept client updates, or updates from an Exchange Server.

Install Evolution on all Clients
Another option would be to install Evolution on all my clients. This is fine, but it doesn’t allow for a quick web check of my schedule. Granted, I can just use the Outlook Web Access option to access my schedules, but I can’t share that with my wife. Google Calendar allows me to share without violating any security procedures. I could just have her import all my Exchange information, but I would rather not. She doesn’t need to read my work email (not that she would want to anyway), just access my schedule to know when I am working late.

Use Apple’s Mac OS X Team Server
There still isn’t a lot of information about the new Team Server that will be available with Mac OS X v.10.5, but from what I can see it could be a viable solution. Here you have a central email and Calendar system, tied into a Wiki system. The rumor is that the Calendar system will be available to Outlook without any special software (not exactly sure how yet, but I am still checking it out), and it can be updated from the latest version of iCal that comes with the 10.5 client. But this means that I need to convince the department to set up a parallel system in place for Calendaring events, scheduling classes, and setting up meetings.

The good news is that with the introduction of the Wiki portion, it looks like it’s a possibility. It solves a lot of problems that we have run into with our class scheduling and requirements for those classes. But it’s not currently available, and looks like it won’t be until October 2007. There are the open source server projects, but without the client integration it’s not as useful. There is a way around it, by using Evolution as the calendar client. I still need to test it out, and getting the server source code is almost more trouble than it’s worth.

Other Open Source Calendar Servers
Apple isn’t the only option when it comes to Calendar servers. There are a number of other options out there, whether it’s a simple option using WebDAV, or a more complex system that integrates email and other features. The problem is, it’s a lot more compiling and organizing than I want to spend on the project. The only server I have access to is the department Apple server, and it’s going to be upgraded to 10.5 when it’s available anyway. So all that configuration will be for naught. But the other options are worth mentioning, particularly if you have a Linux box sitting around. There are:

1. Sun Java System Calendar Server (free evaluation): http://www.sun.com/software/products/calendar_srvr/index.xml
2. Zimbra Collaboration Suite: http://www.zimbra.com/products/?_kk=calendar%20server&_kt=f2d0517e-b008-4176-aae2-1a6e5b5c6e8a&gclid=CMm1nNH7x4sCFQFpYAodgQEODA
3. Really Simple CalDAV Server: http://rscds.sourceforge.net/ This looks like a great tool for anyone running their own Debian server (also available in RPM’s), and knows PpostgreSQL, and PHP.

There are a number of other servers that are being developed, or ready for deployment and can be found at Freshmeat.net.

So, what’s my solution? Well, nothing has really changed. Everything relies on Exchange with the current system, and I’m stuck adding my calendar information to Google Calendar as they come in. Hopefully, one day, there will be interoperability between all these clients and servers, so that there won’t need to be just one solution. But I don’t know when that will be.

2 comments:

Calgoo said...

Hi,

We may have a solution to your calendaring dilemma with exchange, it is called Calgoo. Calgoo imports Outlook and also sync with Google Calendar. In the near future it will have two way sync from Outlook to Calgoo to Google and back again. It also is compatible with the iCal format.

If you're interested in giving it a shot check it out at www.calgoo.com - we love hearing from our users and would value any feedback you could provide.

- Calgoo

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