New Zimbra suite could shift competitive balance in virtualization, cloud

VMware leads with apps, trying to leapfrog Citrix and Microsoft's OS focus

VMware has rolled out a product that may already be better known than any of its other products and which may become the flagship product of its desktop virtualization product suite even though, before the latest version was announced this morning, it had nothing to do with virtualization of any kind.

VMware announced this morning version 7 of the Zimbra Collaboration Suite, now renamed Zimbra Collaboration Server, which VMware bought from Yahoo a year ago and revamped to return it to its roots as an open-source, low-cost alternative to Microsoft Exchange and Outlook.

It rolled the suite out in three major configurations – standard client/server, virtualized servers and clients, or on a virtualized appliance -- all of which can be run internally or hosted

VMware bought Zimbra from Yahoo last January, for no clear reason anyone outside the company seemed able to articulate, despite the 55 million active Zimbra mailboxes in use at the time, and annual growth in the number of mailboxes of nearly 200 percent.

VMware said at the time the acquisition of Zimbra made sense, but the rationale was in marketing gobbledegook.

Oddly, for a genre of fiction in which the quotes of vendor executives are almost always empty fluff, the only clear explanation VMware gave for buying Zimbra was a canned quote from Brian Byun, Vice President and General Manager, Cloud Services, VMware:

...we expect more organizations... to buy core IT solutions that deliver cloud-like simplicity in end-user and operational experience... Zimbra is a great example of the type of scalable ‘cloud era’ solutions that can span smaller, on-premise implementations to the cloud. It will be a building block in an expanding portfolio of solutions that can be offered as a virtual appliance or by a cloud service provider.

Still not very clear, but the fog is clearing away a bit.

First, Zimbra has become a proof of concept for both cloud computing and virtual desktops, giving companies that would normally not experiment with new-ish technologies solid, manageable collaboration software that's also inexpensive even as a cloud-based app.

Second, it gives VMware a way to reach small- and mid-sized companies that often avoid VMware even when they are interested in virtualization because its price tag is higher than that of Microsoft or Citrix for similar configurations.

Zimbra also offers a good killer app for desktop virtualization – a market for which VMware has a host of good products but not a lot of market momentum.

VMware boosted Zimbra's appeal by adding support for its Project Horizon APIs for non-PC devices and third-party software.

VMware also reconfigured Zimbra so it can be installed and used in nearly as many ways as Citrix' virtual desktop clients. You can install it as an internal cloud service, use it primarily on mobile devices, as an appliance, have it hosted externally by a cloud service provider, use the open-source version rather than proprietary, or use actual desktop software rather than just a web browser so you can tell where your mail and documents actually are.

When Yahoo owned Zimbra during 2007 and 2008 it converted the suite to de-emphasize client software in favor of a web front end to Yahoo's mail service, to which the client returned compulsively if it didn't have a local Zimbra server to serve as a home base.

In the year since VMware bought it, Zimbra's user base has expanded to 66 million mailboxes. That's a lot of weight to throw on VMware's virtualization and cloud efforts in the SMB market. Maybe not enough to counter Citrix' lead there, but still a lot.

That's an issue for virtualization vendors, though. The most important thing for end users is that VMware is using a low-cost, high-function set of applications as the lead attraction for its platform products, which are normally invisible to end users, and properly so.

Citrix did that to a certain extent by making it easier to use an iPhone, iPad or other device as front end to a secure virtualized work identity. Even using it, end users don't recognize what it is, or why Citrix should be important to them.

As a vendor, if you can put an email client in the hands of end users and get them to love it, you've bypassed IT and landed yourself a permanent contract. I haven't played with version 7 yet, so I can't say whether it's better than the almost-good-enough-to-dump-Outlook client it used to be.

But it's still a smart strategy for VMware.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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