Argonne Lab Puts Zimbra to the Test

By Michael Hickins  |  Posted 2009-01-27

Argonne Lab Puts Zimbra to the Test

In some ways, Argonne National Laboratory, located 25 miles southwest of Chicago, is unlike most companies you're likely to come across.

A direct descendant of Enrico Fermi's metallurgical research lab--site of the world's first controlled nuclear chain reaction--Argonne was chartered in 1946 as the first national research lab. It is now a Department of Energy lab run by UChicago Argonne.

The lab has some 2,800 employees and an operating budget of about $530 million. It maintains about 200 research projects, ranging from nuclear physics to global climate change.

But in other ways, Argonne resembles a lot of large, siloed organizations: It comprises two dozen quasi-independent divisions, funded by grants the divisions apply for themselves. Each division has its own mandates, budgets, technological needs and, ultimately, IT departments.

Argonne management decided to begin centralizing IT services within the shared CIS (Computing and Information Systems) division in an effort to help those divisions invest more of their grant money in scientific research, as opposed to IT operations.

"One of the goals in the long run is that it's more efficient for the lab as a whole to have a smaller number of people focused on giving a service and doing it well, and allowing people providing localized services to focus on more scientific activities, like mathematical modeling of a supernova," said David Salbego, Unix, storage and operations manager for CIS.

The first task that Salbego and Deputy Manager Brian Finley took on was providing an alternative to the centralized Microsoft Exchange environment.

The lab's divisions run a number of e-mail server applications, including Microsoft Exchange and various types of Unix-based programs. To entice the departments to use CIS e-mail systems, Salbego and Finley knew they had to offer both Exchange and an alternative to Exchange--and, in both cases, the environments had to have the kind of service and scalability that individual departments had come to depend on.

"What we came to realize internally is we can get more [users into the CIS-controlled environment], but [not all divisions were] going to move to our Exchange environment for various reasons," said Salbego.

Unix-based divisions, in particular, were more open to consolidating if they could do it in a Unix-based environment rather than on something with the Microsoft label. "If we were going to bring up a new e-mail service, it was clear we needed to target the Unix-centric divisions. And it had to meet the high levels of reliability, performance and features provided by existing e-mail services, including CIS' own Exchange service," said Salbego.

Argonne Lab Puts Zimbra to the Test

=Zeroing In on Zimbra}

The CIS team decided on the Zimbra Collaboration Suite as its Exchange alternative. The suite includes e-mail, calendar, contact management and document sharing capabilities. The suite also includes instant messaging functionality, but Argonne decided to forgo that feature because the lab has already settled on Jabber as its IM client.

Salbego and Finley had also considered other groupware alternatives--including platforms from IBM Lotus, Novell and Scalix--but found that Zimbra met their most important requirements.

Foremost among those was interoperability of free/busy calendar features. Users had to be able to see others' schedules, regardless of what e-mail system they were using. "If that wasn't the case, it wouldn't fly," said Salbego.

Finley added that they were attracted to Zimbra's open-source tradition, which they felt would make it easier to work with the company and ensure that features were implemented as expected.

In fact, Finley said his team has been able to "interact directly with the developer [at Zimbra] ... to make sure the desired behavior was achieved. ... It's hard to do that with Microsoft or Lotus," he said.

Zimbra pricing is also significantly lower than Exchange's; as a government entity, Argonne benefits from higher discounts, but standard business pricing starts at $25 per user per year, and goes down to $18 for 50 or more seats.

CIS was also looking for a flexible and scalable architecture to support the aim of providing e-mail service with no mailbox quotas.

 "The architecture looked very clean and open to accommodating new features easily, and they didn't have the legacy baggage that comes with some of the systems that have been around a long time," said Finley.

Zimbra's architecture uses best-of-breed tools such as the MySQL database, OpenLDAP for keeping track of user accounts and the Postfix mail transport agent. "We have a leg up on how to implement this in an enterprise setting-these tools are all very well vetted by the enterprise community," said Salbego.

The suite, which Argonne began testing on-premises in 2006, includes a Web-based GUI and a desktop client for when users are offline. The Zimbra server works on Microsoft Outlook, Entourage (for Mac) and Thunderbird clients, which means end users often don't even know they're using Zimbra, according to Salbego.

Argonne Lab Puts Zimbra to the Test

=Master of Their Own Dreams}

Each division that chooses to migrate to Zimbra is given a domain in the Zimbra system. Locally assigned Zimbra domain administrators are able to provision user accounts themselves, using either a Web GUI or a command-line tool provided by Zimbra. This gives divisional administrators a great deal of control, while offloading central services such as hardware maintenance, storage, backups, recovery and availability to CIS.

Since first implementing the open-source e-mail alternative, CIS has migrated some 800 users to Zimbra; another 500 are slated to migrate during 2009.

CIS also hosts e-mail services for about 1,300 users in its Exchange 2003 environment. By the end of the year, said Salbego, more than 90 percent of the organization's staff will be using e-mail services provided by CIS.

According to Salbego, CIS has been able to provide high levels of service and scalability, helping it win over some of the lab's most demanding divisions. "We've gained a lot of credibility and trust," he said.

The migrations did help divisions shift IT staff to more mission-critical activities and freed more money for basic research. CIS also reduced its storage costs, thanks to HSM (hierarchical storage management) functionality within the Zimbra suite.

According to Salbego, Zimbra's integrated HSM capabilities allow Argonne to consume only 200GB of Tier 1 SAN (storage area network) attached storage; data older than 30 days, and Zimbra self-backup, consumes 1.25TB of less-expensive Tier 2 SAN attached storage.

 "It's been a big, big win," said Salbego.

One drawback to Zimbra, said Finley, is the limited high-availability options for user-facing services.

Both Red Hat and Veritas offer add-on applications to resolve this issue, but require that systems run in a Red Hat Linux environment; Argonne runs Ubuntu Linux.

While Argonne would be willing to consider switching Linux distributions, Finley said that a better option is running the Zimbra servers in virtual machines, taking advantage of the high-availability characteristics of the virtual machine environment.

Zimbra is currently certified for VMware virtual machines. Finley expects that the suite will soon be certified for Citrix XenServer, which is the environment used by Argonne.

According to Finley, Argonne has been testing Zimbra in a Xen virtual machine environment successfully and intends to "begin moving portions of the Zimbra service into one or more Xen-based machines."

But Finley said CIS is being very conservative and won't move to such an implementation for at least a few months. He added that it could well move some parts of the Zimbra service--such as virus and spam checking, which generate peaks of load--into a virtual environment ahead of other parts of the service.

Approximately 20 percent of the lab's work force also uses mobile devices, so mobile support is of growing importance.

Zimbra looks like an Exchange server when connecting from iPhones and Windows Mobile- and Palm OS-based phones, allowing users to seamlessly synchronize their e-mail, calendar and address books.

Zimbra is currently beta testing a BlackBerry sync, done through a BlackBerry Enterprise Server via the Zimbra Mobile Connector for BES. Argonne has started testing that feature internally for a limited number of users.

"People are anxiously awaiting the ability to sync with Zimbra from their BlackBerry," said Finley. Argonne is also testing Zimbra's e-discovery capabilities.


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