Hand In Hand

Published Date
01 - May - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - May - 2007
Hand In Hand
We never get tired of broaching collaboration-related topics in this section, and for good reason. No matter how much we streamline our work here at Digit, there's always some snag or the other that comes up-the writer finished the article, but the sub-editor didn't find out, someone forgot to tell the editor that the article was ready for print, and so on.

You won't face the exact same situations, obviously, but unless everyone's reading each other's minds in your organisation, there's scope for improvement.

Half The Client
What do you use Outlook for? If you're connecting to a POP or IMAP server to get your e-mail, then chances are you're using it for the same thing that the majority does-checking your mail, managing your contacts, and perhaps a bit of personal management. The bottom line is that you're using it as a personal tool, and the only way it's helping you interact with your team is through e-mail.

We've touched on the benefits of pairing up Outlook with Microsoft Exchange Server a couple of times in these pages; read on now to find out what those benefits really are.

Meeting At 10… er… 11… er…
Setting up meetings via e-mail can be painful. Imagine this scenario: you've sent your team a message to meet at 11.00 AM. While everyone's busy clearing and/or readjusting his or her schedules, one person replies, saying that he'll be on an outdoor assignment at that time.
You now have to reschedule the meeting, taking your own free time into account- and what if you get the dreaded "I'm not free" reply again?

Assuming you've got everyone to plan their work day in Outlook's calendar, having an Exchange server at your office will enable you to see everyone's free and busy times, so you'll never have to encounter the above situation.

You don't even need to hunt down attendees' schedules-just add them in the list and tell Outlook to hunt for a date and time combination when everyone's free!

You can also manage meeting rooms in Exchange, to avoid those situations where everyone's ready but there's nowhere to hold the meeting.

Worried about what will happen to all your important correspondence while you're gone?

Call Upon Your Minions
One of the features that Outlook gives vacationing employees is the ability to add a delegate for all their daily activities-someone who will reply to your e-mail, ensure that all tasks (discussed later) are either completed or followed up, and so on.

You can decide which of your mail folders delegates have access to (don't let them near your Personal folders, now), as well as whether or not they can create new tasks for your team. All these activities are tracked, so you can check up on what your delegate was up to while you were gone. Apart from being really convenient, that last bit should feed your Big Brother instincts quite well, too.
Remember the Tasks you can set yourself in Outlook? With an Exchange Server, you can set tasks for not only yourself, but also anyone in your team-complete with deadline and follow-up reminder. Managing people just got so much easier.

Another Outlook feature that Exchange "unlocks" is the ability to create public folders or mailboxes, where you can store important (or unimportant) mails so that everyone has access to them.

But… The problem with Exchange Server is that it's expensive. At $67 (Rs 3,000) per license, it seems like more of a luxury for a small organisation, unless everything has plunged into chaos. In the past year or so, we've seen the emergence of open source alternatives to Exchange, and while they don't mimic all the features, they do get the essentials right.

Each of the suites you'll encounter comes with all the caveats of open source software-specifically, iffy free support. If you do decide to go in this direction, we recommend coughing up the extra money for a supported version. In fact, the developers have presented the products as paid software with an optional GPL licensed version. 

Open-Xchange Server

Open-Xchange is one of the more promising Exchange alternatives available today. It works in every situation that Exchange does, including with Palm- and Windows Mobile-based PDAs, and adds a few more features on top. Depending on the size of your organisation, you'll end up paying license fees starting from $30 (Rs 1,350) per user to as little as $25 (Rs 1,125)-not exactly cheap, but less than half the price of Exchange Server.

It also runs only on Linux, so you'll have to set up a Red Hat or SuSE Server to run it (other distributions are fine, too, but Open-Xchange officially supports the aforementioned two). If you're worried about the skills required, fret not-Open-Xchange has a fairly easy-to-understand administration interface.

To get Outlook and other devices or software working with Open-Xchange, you'll first have to download the respective OXtender plugin; not a particularly palatable act, but it's one of the compromises you have to make when forsaking Microsoft Exchange.

Once you've got the OXtender, Outlook integrates with Open-Xchange quite seamlessly, even updating itself automatically. On the other hand, you don't get to keep your existing Outlook folders-the OXtender creates its set of Open-Xchange inbox.

You can get yourself a live demo of the Open-Xchange Web interface at www.open-xchange.com/footer/downloads/openxchange_onlinedemo.html (the server isn't always responsive, however); this will give you an idea of the features it gives you. We're quite impressed with the project management part-these solutions are usually made for software developers, but the ability to add your own custom fields to a project makes it easier to adapt to your own specific needs. Finally, it features Infostore-a knowledge base where you can store documents for everyone to access.

The Community Angle
If you want to try out Open-Xchange, you can download the Open-Xchange Community Edition free of cost. This open source edition is mainly for developers who intend to contribute to the project, but if you've got the time and skill, you can set it up as a long-term solution in your office as well.

You're not left to fend for yourself, thankfully-Open-Xchange has been extensively documented on the wiki (wiki.open-xchange. com), and there are a bunch of step-by-step guides to help you on your way. There's also a forum for you to share ideas and problems with the community.

Even for an organisation with as little as twenty people, having this collaboration setup will prove invaluable. Nearly everyone uses Outlook at work, so the environment is as friendly as can be. You can access your collaboration tools from anywhere as well, just as long as you have Internet access.

For smaller organisations, even using the open source edition is fine, but if you have luck like ours, you'll inevitably be faced with a problem that befuddles both you and the rest of the community. If you and/or a minion has the skill to save the day in such a scenario, well and good-if not, stick to the paid version.

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.