Sunday, May 04, 2008


I discovered recently Zoho (, a desktop application service provider. The tools are neat and expanding. You can do the classical office jobs such as word processing, spread-sheet and presentation, a mail app is still in beta and I haven't tried their database application yet.

There are also business apps coming: CRM and invoicing. The business model is not advertising or marketing based (I applause), basic usage is free while heavy / professional usage may be charged.

Globally it is a nice set of tools. In my opinion the tag-based filling system is interesting, yet it is difficult to see all type of document related to let say a project or a customer. Also I could not find an easy way to include a spread-sheet in a text - except may be like an HTML iframe. I admit, I am a novice user of their system.

A much more strategic issue is concerning technical integration and freedom. We miss a global model and a good bunch of standards to rent applications from multiple vendors and mix them to achieve an IT system.

Having said that, the worth part is in the terms and conditions. Well, read and think about it... Prices may change, free things may become costy and no warranty is made about your data, availability of services etc.

This is in my opinion, a key problem of this kind of business (the following it is not specifically related to Zoho). We have here an emerging industry rejecting most forms of liability, warranty and responsibility!

Obviously a remote ASP cannot guarantee that my ISP will do its job, but aren't they responsible if they garbage my data? Or may be should they think about charging for such extra-liability. Obviously the bottom line is made by insurance companies, only these can help creating professional ASP a reality. The model should be similar to life insurance and air transportation: a basic fee built in your ticket and more can be purchased if the customer wants to do so.

As I wait for that, I would recommend these services to implement at least a clean backup system (some ISP propose this for databases), so a user can retrieve all its data in a somehow common format.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Office 2007

Office 2007 is a major interface change. Changing an interface that people are used to is always an issue. I admit, I hate it, its only purpose seems to fill more space on screens that are getting bigger...

Today I wanted to change the outline numbering of my paragraps, so paragraph numbering would look 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 - 2, 2.1 etc.

Where is that? First difficulty is finding the Modify Style dialog. The good old menus are gone...

Finally a right click on the Style Toolbox/TextBox on the ribbon (I did not first, this was calle the style gallery...) starts the dialog. Having spent one hour on this dialog (productivity gain announced by MS seems a joke), I could not changed the outline numbering.

Finally I Googled, and found

Well, select your style on the Toolbox then click on the Drop-dow (multi-level level) in the group Paragraph and yes... there you can change this outline numbering!

Do you know other way of doing it? Let me know.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Netbeans 6.x as a PHP IDE

As I am currently working with a PHP written CMS - Joomla - I tried the new beta plugin for Netbeans. With this extension you can create PHP projects and get code completion. Debugging in the IDE is possible provided you install the xdebug extension on the server.

As usual the Linux distribution is done through source code, it tooks me around 20 minutes to get the build process up and running. Debugging worked fine for simple application but for Joomla the debugger started but the resulting page was always blank.

I finally give up and used Wamp server on windows, there is worked perfectly. I still don't know why I can't get it up and running on my Linux machine. Among the difference : wamp comes with php 5 per default.

The extension for PHP editing in Netbeans :
Debugger for PHP :
Apache + PHP + MySQL :

Friday, April 04, 2008

Mail server crash

This week-end, our mail server crashed. I must admit this is only a half surprise, as strange noises were heard from this server since a few weeks. Unfortunately the largest (and newest – but still old) hard disk crashed, bringing our Exchange databases to the world of lost data.

In fact I have plans to replace this Microsoft Exchange 5.5 on NT 4.0 by something else since a few months. Since two years I am trying to consolidate our servers on a bigger Fujitsu-Siemens Tx300 S2 with Novell SLES 10.x and VMWARE server. So my idea was to find a free (or cheap) alternative to MS Exchange working on Linux.

There are many such applications on the market, all claiming to be the perfect replacement for the market leader (or at least the reference).


A month ago, I evaluated Open-Xchange for that purpose.
My first remark is about Open Source and business model. How can a company make money with free product ? There is a trend to provide a community version (with source code) and no support and to sell or rent an enterprise class product. What is usually unclear is which version of the Open-Souce code correspond to a stable product (if any).
In this case, you have the choice of a community product, an Express product and an enterprise product. Licensing of the open source, community version could be subject of an article as the Web GUI has not the same license as the rest of the code (smell bad). There is also a huge difference of price between Express edition (starting 5 users) and Enterprise (25 users). Also the pricing is under a yearly subscription basis (MS is priced for life) so a comparison need to be done on several years and take account how often you will upgrade (if you know..).

Finally I give up with Open-Xchange :
  • first, I found the handling of international locale very poor (I could not find an easy way to display date in European format yet having the interface in English).
  • second, the support for Outlook is very basic with calendar sharing but e-mail is available as an IMAP/POP mail server instead of a unified/synchronized folder within Outlook (as Microsoft Exchange does).

A customer pointed me to Scalix a few weeks ago. This is again an Open-Source Linux based challenger for Microsoft Exchange. There is also here some questioning about the Open-source licensing (you can find articles on the web - the Scalix licence could be not OSI approved - I think this requires a serious study), but at least you have a free community edition with all the functionalities – including Outlook integration (but for 10 users – enough for me).

I must admit the condition of test are not ideal, I created a VMWARE virtual machine with around 512 MB of RAM and OpenSuse 10.2 (I known 10.3 is out but 10.2 is in the Scalix supported list). It worked ! I have been first very impressed by the Web interface, it is very similar to a desktop application, you can even use drag and drop ! The installation of the Outlook connector went also fine, the functionality is comparable to the original MS Exchange. So I used this Outlook connection to load my personal contacts (around 400 records). Starting there, there has been a permanent disk activity and the web interface which was good but slow became very very very slow.

Again I admit the virtual hardware I provided is minimal. After a while, popup errors started on the GUI, at that stage the thing went unusable. I tried to extend the VM memory to 700 MB (more would result in swapping), I still noticed permanent disk activity on the server – related to the VM running Scalix.

Also that day I also tried to use my backup of the Exchange database, I could recover the directory, private and public databases but the MTA could not start – I did not backup that part !

After my Scalix investigation, I went to bed.

The day after, I restarted the Scalix VM. The thing was still very slow for the Web GUI but again more or less workable and the Outlook connector behaved very properly. So Scalix was my temporary saver.

Exchange is back

Surprise ! My colleague congratulated me for putting back the Exchange service ! Well, it appears that the MTA restarted by itself – there is a service agent permanently trying to restart other services. How it did, mystery ! Since day 0, I have always been impressed by the reliability of MS Exchange – at least the old version. Here again “bravo”.

Still digging in Scalix

The “by chance” recovered Exchange is not going to stay as our mail server. It is 10 years old and I am sure one day or another the other disks will fail. So I tried putting the Scalix software directly on SLES 10 instead of being hosted in a VM. Unfortunately my TX300 is a 64 bits machine, but the Scalix install process asked for some 32 bits libraries. I found an indication on a forum to install the 32 bits version of the library – it seems to be a know Scalix issue-, but I did not tried. Why ? Because with my mail server crashed I did not want to endanger our main remaining machine.

So I decided to buy a new entry level server, for mail purpose. My idea was to check first for Dell, I found the server page, small business etc and there I saw an arrow… “Start configuring” but I could not start anything (nor with Firefox nor with IE). So I give up. My opinion, one more damned Javascript stuff not working... Finaly I ordered a new Fujistsu-Siemens Primery Econel 100 S2. It is there, but not yet installed.

Will I keep Scalix? I don’t know, I am going to give it one more try with the new server. One thing , we remarked incompatibility between the web GUI and some version of IE (including version 7). Of course, I can install Firefox everywhere, but I cannot be sure to find it everywhere when I am outside of the office…

My conclusions for today
  • a lot of companies are saying they are Open Source, but they seem to have priced products and they are not always clear about it, it is still worth checking but you must think before going ahead.
  • AJAX web based client applications are very trendy but I am still waiting for one that is nice and stable in production use.
  • don’t forget to make good, regular, tested backups.