Getting away with data – getting into Kolab

By   2016-02-09

In my last post I outlined the process of switching from Basket Notepads and misc text files to one integrated solution for note-taking within Kolab. That was one of the least technical tasks, apart from using a diff front-end there was little tech savvy involved. This time I’m going to sum up the overall experience with Kolab and Kolab Now, but go beyond strictly technical details.

Before diving in

I’d like to remind you, that Kolab and Kolab Now are two related, but different things. Kolab is a package of Open Source groupware. You can join the community at kolab.org and if my series of posts was of any use to you, I encourage you to do so. Kolab Now on the other hand is one of the brands held by Kolab Systems AG – a company established in Switzerland that sells hosted Kolab instances in a subscription model dealing with individual and enterprise customers.

Those two are organically linked, but keep in mind that:

When Kolab changes, Kolab Now changes as well, but slower. Since they’re a business and face change management, customer support and all that, they have to handle any kind of risk associated with patching the systems and upgrading them to a new release.

The feature set of Kolab Now is/may be different than the base Kolab install gives you. I’ve learned that Kolab can use the Chwala back-end to serve files with the Seafile cloud sync client, but the data has to reside beyond the primary data store which is implemented with IMAP. Also: this function is not enabled with the current Kolab Now deployment.

Because Kolab is Open Source you can deploy your own custom instance at home, in your organization or lab, but then it’s 100% your responsibility to pay the electricity bills and maintain the system. I went with a subscription because I just don’t want the hassle and want someone more skilled with this type of technology to help me out.

Lessons learned

I actually subscribed in fall 2013 when the brand was called MyKolab, so I’m with the service for more than a year. Because of that, I surely have some findings and it’s time to share them!

Conclusion #1 – reading the specs is important, but the test period is better;

As with any service you should read about it before buying. I followed the Kolab community for quite some time before getting my hands dirty. To be honest with you, many of the blog posts on planetkolab focus on topics that are technically out of my league, but I always enjoyed the articles describing various new features.

Before trying out Kolab Now I pestered a bit their marketing department and finally went for a trial period and after some adjusting I managed to hit it off pretty well. I liked the simplicity and the fact that Kolab isn’t another attempt to reinvent the wheel.

Conclusion #2 – it’s easy to wrongly estimate the complexity of a given step

What I have learned was that mail was the hardest part to migrate and calendars the easiest, despite my initial assumptions being exactly the opposite. Let me define how I understand “migration” in my case: this is not only the process of pushing data from place to place and between formats. This is also the attached process of reorganizing and cleaning up. Contacts gave me lots of work, but a significant part was done by the automatic deduplication and the rest was mostly deleting stuff as I went. Mail on the other hand took not only the most preparation, the most studying and experimenting but also the most reworking and cleaning up. I’m actually still not done (although really close).

The migration coincided with the roll-out of GTD in my life, so I had to hack through tons of garbage to shape the mailbox my way. The rewiring as I call it of my legacy mailboxes and unsubscribing from the various services is a project on its own and I won’t be talking here about it.

Conclusion #3 – Priorities of module migrations may shift

I’m not a business, but I try to mind my own business as good as possible. For quite awhile I thought that in my best interest is to migrate notes as soon as possible, right after mail and contacts. And wouldn’t you know it, I was wrong again.

I wasn’t even halfway through pushing the contacts into the cloud and I had to upgrade my lite subscription into the full one, because I needed calendaring quite badly. Part of this could be foreseen, but on the other hand… some things started changing quite dynamically and I suddenly needed calendars to cope.

Conclusion #4 – Kolab is closer to Exchange than to Gmail;

That’s one of the biggest surprises I had. Because of how Gmail sees the world, migrating from Exchange might have been easier. Both Kolab and Exchange segregate mail into folders and any given message can exist in one folder only. If you want it to be in two places, you create a copy. I’ve gathered two years worth of experience with MS Exchange and Outlook, so I’m used to this. Also: as far as I remember, other mail systems worked exactly the same.

Gmail uses a stack and tags the messages, so any email exists in only one place in the entire system and is segregated by means of tags. While GMail uses the tags as views into the database, Kolab and Exchange sort mail into classic folders and give you tags as an added layer of information.

Conclusion #5 – Open Source gives quality and future-proofs the product;

As ESR pointed out with shelf software, whenever the producer disappears, users quickly seek a different solution.

By contrast, when a software product’s vendor goes out of business (or if the product is merely discontinued), the maximum price consumers will pay for it rapidly falls to near zero regardless of its theoretical use value or the development cost of a functional equivalent. (To check this assertion, examine the remainder bins at any software store near you.)

Kolab being open-source has much greater chances of surviving in the changing market. Even if things go horribly wrong, I could rent a VPS and migrate.

Conclusion #6 – But you need tech support from time to time;

I’ve dealt with hardware and software for years now. I got my first PC when I was 7 and went on from there going with MS operating systems from MS-DOS/Windows 98 up to Seven. During the years I’ve dealt with home users, small businesses and big enterprises.

I also tried Linux, failed with Linux and ultimately succeeded with and thanks to it. Although constantly learning there’s a nice portfolio of what I can do. And an immense of what I can’t do and never will be able to do. I helped countless end users (possibly pissing some of them off in the process), but I need to acknowledge the times when I need help.

And that’s when Kolab Now wins big: if I went the self hosted route, I’d have to manage the entire back-end, LDAP database, mail server, domain settings, spam, firewalls… That’s far too much for me and I’m more than happy to pay someone to take the hassle off of my hands.

Although Google offers the free plan to everyone, they also have a paid offering with support proving that if you want to get the job done, you most likely have to pay. I decided to pay the Kolab people.

Nice bonus: they have a dedicated Twitter account for communicating outages and service information. I wish they placed it in more prominent places, because I missed it and the helpdesk people had to tell me about it.

Only one issue was not resolved: one day I’ve found that some of my contacts evaporated from the web UI. Under settings I could see the number of objects that roughly was the number of the contacts. I managed to pull a copy from Kontact and upload it. So, nothing is perfect, as covered by the ToS and Murphy’s Laws.

To sum up this section: knowing how to fix something is knowledge. Knowing when to ask for help is wisdom. Side note: it’s great to be on the other side of the helpdesk for once 😉 .

Conclusion #7 – The skills and experiences pay off;

Before I went on this journey I thought I had a firm understanding of email. Oh, I was so wrong, both with email in general as well as the implementations themselves. Don’t get me wrong here: I had a nice grip on mail protocols, but never went into deeper specifics.

When preparing for the move I had to do my homework and it paid off, both at work and in general. In my previous job I used to be kind of good with MS Exchange and when I managed to get a more holistic view it must have helped at least a couple of times.

Bonus points: knowing Kolab was an asset during interviews when job hunting. Seriously, it opened the door for interesting discussions.

Conclusion #8 – It started as a service and went into a business relationship;

It’s a bit hard to have a “business relationship” with the local electric company or the sewer facility unless you’re in charge of some actual company that buys utilities in huge bulk. With e-mail it’s different as I’ve noticed. When using free offerings you have to forget about this most of the time: it’s take it or leave it.

Kolab Now is a part of my business and I’m a part of theirs. I consider them as the people who make the mail flow and since that’s my communication channel of choice, I can safely say that Kolab Now makes my words find their recipients.

Conclusion #9 – Features are great, but simplicity is still key;

The UI used in the whole thing is really trying not to get in you’re way and for the most time succeeds. If you’ve ever used Roundcube then you have little to learn when it comes to mail. Contacts and calendars are also pretty straightforward. Compare this to Office 365 and you have a clear winner. Microsoft has went completely overboard with the “tiles” and seeing those pesky little things outside of a touch device makes me cringe. You have them in the cloud and in Server 2012. I’ve heard IT professionals, regular users and executives facedesk, because MS decided to push their idea fixe.

Kolab stays away from similar “innovations” and good.

Conclusion #10 – Privacy matters;

The most important thing I’ve left for the last. The whole trend of data mining, ad targeting to mention a few is more and more worrying. Adblock and Ghostery went from “add-ons” to “must haves”. And let’s not even start the whole discussion about intelligence offices sniffing what they see fit.

It’s really sad to see how power corrupts and I hope Kolab Systems will never fall to this horrible caveat.

What is a welcomed change, is that Kolab Systems really cares about your privacy; to the extent where you have to approve them looking into the meta-data of the mailboxes you own. Because all the data is kept in Switzerland, you have a pretty decent chance it’s safe.

Also their ToS is worth reading: it’s simple and seems really reasonable. It doesn’t try to give Kolab Systems too much power and keeps focused. I also really like the part where they warn spammers they will be fined per email per recipient. This ToS has been independently reviewed by ToS;dr and received an A rating, which speaks for itself.

Delivering and wrapping up

There are some last remarks to be made, namely some paper-cuts with the UI:

  • I constantly hover over the app selector when trying to use find, either I’m clumsy, or they’re too close;
  • Different modules work well or not at all when changing the width of the window (I hope Roundcube Next will fix this);

As with other services: you can be lazy, but unlike other, you don’t have to.

This was the last installment of my „Getting away with data” series and I hope you liked it. The topic of cloud and groupware solutions is vast and just one batch of blog entries would be not enough to cover any significant portion of it.

/tangodelta