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The main reason why VMware took open source core groupware software maker Zimbra off the hands of Yahoo back in January was to have yet one more piece of code to sell to SMB customers and hosting companies adopting its vSphere server virtualization stack. Today, a virtual appliance version of the Zimbra email, calendaring, and collaboration is available as a standalone offering.

Making a virtual appliance is not that big a deal, but VMware faced some particular challenges in putting Zimbra in a virtual shrink wrapper to distribute it in a virtualized appliance format. For one thing, most of VMware's customers are running Windows server operating systems, but Zimbra runs on Linux.

In the case of the virtual appliance version of Zimbra Collaboration Suite, the Linux in question is a distribution of Ubuntu. But SMB shops that use Windows don't want to learn Linux, and VMware didn't want to port ZCS to Windows, either.

So, says Jim Morrisroe, general manager of the Zimbra business at VMware, the company created a web-based administration tool that hides the underlying knobs and switches of the Ubuntu Linux and ZCS application from system administrators.

The trick, says Morrisroe, is to do all the integration with VMware's vSphere stack for high availability, backup, and disaster recovery and with Microsoft's Active Directory for account provisioning and authentication from the web console. Also, to provide automate the patching and updating of the appliance in such a way that admins never need to get into the guts of the ZCS and Ubuntu code.

SMBs and cloud/hosting providers just plunk down the whole appliance and start adding users. There are even tools for migrating over Exchange

VMware has certified the ZCS virtual appliance to run atop the ESX Server/ESXi 4.0 and ESXi 4.1 hypervisors and their respective vSphere 4.0 and 4.1 management tools. It seems very unlikely that the ZCS Appliance will make its way to Hyper-V, Xen, or KVM hypervisors, since VMware is trying to pull vSphere license sales because of the popularity of the Zimbra software, which is installed at more than 150,000 customers and which supports over 60 million seats worldwide.

That makes Zimbra a clear number three for commercially supported groupware tools, behind Microsoft's Outlook/Exchange and IBM's Notes/Domino. One customer, which is very likely Yahoo, has 30 million of those Zimbra seats.

The initial ZCS Appliance from VMware is a single instance of the Zimbra that is designed to support 1,000 users and no more. If you need to support more users, you have to buy the full ZCS software license from VMware and cluster the Linux servers together to scale out your groupware the old-fashioned way.

In a future release of the ZCS Appliance, VMware will mask the complexities of this clustering (much as it has for Linux server administration in the first version) and allow multiple appliances to be lashed together and managed as a single unit. How far these virtual Zimbra appliance clusters will scale is unclear; all VMware is saying for now is that it will comprise multiple instances and multiple thousands of end users. This future ZCS Appliance release is expected in 2011, according to Morrisroe.

One big difference between the full ZCS software and the appliance is that the full suite has a MAPI interface, which allows Outlook to think the Zimbra server is Exchange. The ZCS Appliance is missing this MAPI code, and VMware wants customers to use its own freebie Zimbra Desktop client.

Morrisroe said a future version of the Zimbra virtual appliance could include this MAPI software, but he didn't sound particularly enthusiastic about the idea, and further said that VMware liked its own client and wanted customers to use it.

A license to the Zimbra ZCS Appliance costs $625 for 25 users. The freestanding ZCS Starter Edition costs $399 for 15 mailboxes and has no support, while the ZCS Standard Edition costs the same $625 as the ZCS Appliance and includes support for 25 seats.

Zimbra ZCS Professional Edition, which includes the MAPI and other goodies, costs $875 for 25 users. An annual support contract costs the same as the perpetual license for each product, which is $25 or $35 per seat per year.

Zimbra's engineering and support operations have been borged into VMware and so has its salesforce: so now, Zimbra's products are backed by a global support operation, and all of VMware's sales reps and 25,000 channel partners can peddle Zimba software. ®

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