Getting away with data – Good enough wasn’t good enough

By   2015-09-24

In the last part I discussed the problems with various mail providers of the „free” sort. You get a service without paying money, but you get ads shoved in your face and privacy gets compromised. And while Google went to great lengths to make the ads in Gmail as little intrusive as they could, I still have double thoughts about trusting them with my communications.

Things have changed

First I had only one account, then I stopped caring and made a mess, next I stared caring but had no idea how to cleanup the mess. In the meantime I got a job in an enterprise environment and I’ve noticed one thing: MS Outlook was everywhere. And for a reason: while far from perfect it works Good Enough to serve the purpose of keeping e-mail flow in one place. Most people have only one account, sometimes people need shared mailboxes for special purposes, but that’s the minority. And they have to care, otherwise their work suffers.

I wanted something like this for myself, but without the MS inflicted nonsense (using a proprietary protocol just for starters). It started to become apparent that Gmail was losing in one point I found important: contact management. Their contact module doesn’t look much LDAP compliant (it later turned out that their folder management scheme is completely different than I’m used to as well).

The question was: if not Microsoft, nor Google and not the smaller providers, then who?

Nobody expects the Kolab groupware!

I use KDE made software since 2007 and I liked it on first sight. This actually is a story worth its own entry, but lets keep it short for now. One of the cornerstones of the KDE Desktop (or KDE SC) is Kontact. Kontact is actually a box that integrates all the PIM programs: a mail agent, a calendar, address-book etc. into one coherent whole. I had some experience with Kontact, I mostly used it for the calendar, but dropped out and returned to my long time favorite: Mozilla Thunderbird (which had the bonus of decent multi-platform support) the mail client of choice at our home after the ugly Outlook Express got sent into the dark pit it crawled out of in the times of dial-up.

I had little exposure to more complete and holistic programs like Kontact and didn’t need it for years. But one of the great things with software (FOSS especially) is that it’s easy to find a new program once you outgrow the old one. And so, Konact had it’s return, this time I wanted to get to know it better. But what about the backbone?

Outlook has Exchange, and so Kontact has the Kolab server. Kolab is Free and Open Source Software, so you can deploy it at home or a large organization for free and no strings attached. I always heard about Kolab from time to time ( anyone?) but never actually used it as a back-end. That changed when I read a post from Aaron Seigo on what Kolab actually was (can’t find it though). Bulding a private instance would be an overkill so I decided to go with MyKolab (that’s how Kolab Now was called when I first joined). What ensued was a fascinating trip that is still in progress and I’ll happily share my findings.

Before diving in

Because I don’t want to sound like some advertising agent and be misunderstood, some clarification is needed:

  1. I don’t work at Kolab Now, but I’m a satisfied customer;
  2. I’m not doing any paid advertising, I just think it’s worth to spread the word about a FOSS based service that works for me with my day-to-day activities;
  3. There are other ways to use the Kolab technology, one of them deploying it yourself, but I just never wanted the hassle;
  4. It’s important to know the difference between Kolab and Kolab Now:
    1. Kolab is an Open Source groupware project;
    2. Kolab Systems is a Switzerland-based company, that uses this technology, offers paid service for private and enterprise customers and contributes back to the Kolab project;
      1. Kolab Now is the personal side of their business: individual subscriptions offered to individual customers;
      2. There is also Kolab Enterprise targeted at (big) companies, but I’m not covering this topic at all (I’m not a big company, you know? 😉 );
    3. To sum up:
      1. You don’t have to “buy” Kolab, it’s free;
      2. You can however buy a subscription from Kolab Now – you’re not paying for the software, but for the service;
      3. This explains why “free as in beer” software is free, but FOSS-centric companies still manage to make a profit and expand.

Kolab Now offers two subscriptions that vary in features:

  1. “Lite” option that gives you mail and contacts;
  2. The full subscription which adds the following: calendar, tasks, notes, files.

In a world where all the big players just shove more and more a simple subscription that does exactly what it is told to is much welcome. Aunt Tillie doesn’t need to manage a whole department, she wants to send her niece some LOL Cats.

So many pieces, so little time

When starting I at least was free from one illusion: that cleaning up and re-organising my communications and underlying technologies would be a snap. Going from one e-mail provider to another may be done overnight if your case is simple, my was a bit more complex. When I started laying out the first pieces, this is how it looked like:

  • Gmail mailbox feeding mail from a university mailbox in addition to lots of direct messages [size: big; complexity: medium]
  • A Gmail mailbox feeding data from 3 different, legacy mailboxes I used to use; given as registration address for lots of services, many of them defunct [size: medium; complexity significant]
  • A Gmail mailbox I used for my resumes, much more official, least used [size: small; complexity: small]

Lets call them Ham, Spam and Eggs in that order.

What I’m going to describe here won’t be a do this do that click this type of a scenario (although I’ll also go deep into some migration details to save you people some of the hassle I had). I’m aiming at a more complete cocktail of technology meets use case or how the tools are used in practice. The mess I had with my mailboxes had little to do with e-mail as technology per se, more with e-mail as medium, e-mail as custom/cultural object.

When I look back I think there may be some sorts of invisible contract between the user and the mailbox:

Don’t do dumb things with me, and we’ll both be happy.

I’ve been using the term “mailbox” but this is no longer the case, even for the more simple services. The free, smaller providers give you at least an addressbook in addition to the mailbox itself, so most of the time you have two things to migrate. Many more give you a calendar, so that’s three. Gmail has also tasks, notes and files (in the form of Google Drive) as well as integrated chat that’s built on top of XMPP. Other services may have a mix of some of these and add something different in return.

I decided to map the whole operation according to how Kolab Now organizes all those functions into separate programs (or modules) available in the WEB UI. Those are, in this order:

  1. Mail
  2. Address book
  3. Calendar
  4. Tasks
  5. Files
  6. Notes

I had some assumptions when approaching this whole thing, some of them proved to be true, other not. When thinking about this, my moral is as follows: know your needs and workflow. Ex. I thought that calendars would be a headache to move and e-mail would be easier (it was exactly the opposite).

In the following episodes I’ll try to describe all the steps of the process and what I ended with.


One Comment on “Getting away with data – Good enough wasn’t good enough

  1. Pingback: Getting away with data – Migrating to Kolab Now – Mail Part #1 (preparation) – Fractured Lens

Comments are closed.