Citadel: open source groupware made easy

Posted by IGnatiusTFoobar on Sep 27, 2005 9:41 AM; By Art Cancro

Read about a unique and powerful open source groupware server that's been around for years, but you might not have known about it.

Citadel: open source groupware made easy

Years ago, users expected their electronic mail systems to send and receive messages, and not much else. Today's users, however, are more sophisticated. They expect Personal Information Manager (PIM) functions such as calendars and address books, a choice of access methods, and a variety of groupware functions. Yet the goal of providing an easily deployable open source groupware platform has, until recently, been somewhat elusive. Most of the popular choices have been built as traditional web applications, requiring a system administrator to install and configure a mail server, a web server, and a database server before being able to begin the groupware installation. Moreover, the resulting functionality has followed a cookie-cutter style modeled after proprietary systems that some consider outdated. This is why you might be surprised to learn about the existence of a project that not only solves the complexity problem, but takes a fresh new approach to groupware.

A familiar program in a new role

Citadel is an open source groupware server that has its roots in online communities. You may remember the Citadel BBS's of the 1980's and 1990's; today's groupware platform is of the very same pedigree. But to write off Citadel as an overgrown BBS package does not do justice to the powerful abilities of this impressive platform. While most groupware systems center around the automation of business processes, Citadel offers a platform that you can build a community around. It centers around the idea of connecting people together in real time using a set of tools that focuses on people, not processes.

System administrators will find Citadel refreshingly easy to install. There is no need to "bring your own" mail server, web server, or database server. Citadel has all of its data stores and protocols built in. It uses the powerful Berkeley DB [] database for all of its storage needs. All of the popular electronic mail protocols are built in, including ESMTP, POP3, and IMAP, as well as GroupDAV for connecting popular open source PIM clients such as Kontact and Evolution. There is no need for the tedious mucking about with cryptic Sendmail configuration files or obscure Cyrus commands; everything is configurable through an easy to use browser-based interface.

For those who are nervous about the prospect of compiling software from source, Citadel provides an "Easy Install" script that handles this task for you. Entering one command at a shell prompt downloads an install script from the Citadel project's download server, and performs the entire installation automatically.

A fresh new approach

From the moment you log in, you will notice that there's something different about this platform. This isn't the stuffy forms-and-folders groupware you've grown to hate. Citadel sites are organized into imaginary physical spaces called "rooms." A room can be an email folder, or it can be a message board, or a calendar, an address book, a mailing list, an RSS sink, a chat room, or potentially a combination of two or more of the above.

Because of its roots in the world of online communities, Citadel has evolved as a user-focused platform. Users love Citadel because it's software that helps them work, play, stay in touch... without calling attention to itself. It gets out of the way and focuses on the concept that "the message is the medium" -- all else is noise and is kept to the absolute minimum.

But perhaps one of Citadel's most unique features is its powerful networking functionality. Two or more Citadel nodes can be connected into a loosely federated network, not only delivering mail between them but performing network-wide replication of "shared rooms" as well. Imagine a bulletin board, or a calendar, or even an address book shared across every Citadel server in your organization. For those familiar with the way Lotus Notes can replicate its databases, this is the same thing (except it's easy). Citadel's use of this unified, replicatable data store is what makes it so powerful and so simple at the same time. For example, if you want to spread your users out across multiple servers but still have all of their email addresses in a single domain, you simply share the Global Address Book room.

Try it!

Browse the screenshots if you'd like; a picture is worth a thousand words, but a live demonstration is worth a thousand pictures. So treat yourself to a demonstration by logging on to one or more of the Citadel sites that are available on the public Internet. Connect with your favorite client software, be old-school and telnet to the text based interface, or log on with your web browser and enjoy the rich Ajax-style online experience. You might find that the best open source groupware platform has been available all this time and you just never knew it was there.

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