SuSE eMail Server: Best of Show?

Thursday Sep 19th 2002 by Carla Schroder

Give SuSE's Linux-based eMail Server fifteen minutes, and it will give you a full-featured mail and group calendaring setup with a Web front end that 'just works' for under $1000 and no per-seat licensing. Carla Schroder reports.

Pop quiz: what messaging server has group calendaring, including free/busy notifications, group contacts, POP3 and IMAP, built-in encryption, Web mail, low system requirements, high scalability, reasonable cost, and non-restrictive licensing? Answer: SuSE Linux eMail Server 3.1.

Sound too good to be true? It isn't. This is what all commercial software should be like. SuSE provides a complete package, including the operating system, SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 7. It is designed to run standalone on a dedicated server, just pop in the installation CD and 15 minutes later you have a mail server. SuSE installs only the necessary components for a complete messaging server. It occupies a mere 515 megabytes.

15 Minutes
A number of options are presented when the installation CD boots up: Installation, Manual Installation, Rescue, and Memory Test. Manual Installation is for users who want to experience the pain of installing drivers and kernel modules manually. Memory Test is the old reliable memtest86, for thorough RAM testing. If you're going to perform hardware testing before installation, you might as well go all the way with TuffTest Pro, and test everything.

Partitioning options are auto partition, custom partition, and custom with Volume Management. Auto partition creates only 3 partitions: boot, root, and swap, so it is better to do custom partitioning. I recommend four partitions: boot, root, swap, and /var. /var should be in its own primary partition, as the mailboxes are stored here. Backups are easier, and if anything bad happens, it will be isolated from the system files. Assign 25 megabytes to boot, twice your physical memory to swap, and 1 gigabyte for /. The rest can go to /var.

Warning: there is no option to create a non-privileged user during setup. After installation, the very first thing you must do is create one. Running any server logged in as root is extremely foolish! Simply open a terminal and use the good old useradd command.

Choose your host and domain names carefully- changing them later is difficult, it's best to get it right from the start. For an Internet-connected mail server, I prefer the following setup:
-behind a dedicated NAT firewall/Internet gateway
-static, nonroutable IP on the mail server
-IP addressing, rather than internal DNS

Of course you can set it up any way you like.

Remember, for Internet mail you need a registered domain name, and somewhere an MX record that points to your mail server. DNS is usually the biggest quagmire for the sysadmin, drop me a line if you want a tutorial on DNS configuration.

Assuming you have all your network configuration information at the ready, installation will take 20 minutes or less. I installed it on an old Celeron 333, 256 megs RAM, in 12 minutes. Official system requirements are heftier: 1 GHz CPU, 256 megs RAM, 9 GB SCSI RAID. Such a machine could easily handle a couple thousand users. My machine would be satisfactory for a couple hundred users. System requirements depend more on how much activity your users generate, than simply the number of users. Remember, this is an IMAP server, which means most of the workload and storage are on the server.

Configuration is browser-based, type http://{server_ip] to access it. By default there are two admin accounts: cyrus and mailadmin. The default passwords are the same as root's system password. cyrus is the mail server boss. However cyrus does not have operating system privileges, only root is all-powerful. mailadmin is even more limited. Postfix will not send mail to root, root's mail must go to a non-privileged user. SuSE creates mailadmin for this purpose, all system messages go to mailadmin.

SuSE eMail server can and should be run in console mode. Log in from another machine running an X session for configuration and admin chores via browser.

Creating Users
Logged in as cyrus, start creating user accounts. Domain and routing configuration were already done during installation, so we can get right to the fun stuff. SuSE's Webmail component is called SKYRiXgreen. (Us old grammarians live in a constant state of appalled in these modern times.) Using this as the only email client means no more work after the initial setup. Users who want standalone email clients, such as Evolution, Kmail, Outlook, etc., must also have their mail clients configured.

All of the important user configuration options are done in one or two windows: disk quota, password, group membership, resources and permissions- the whole enchilada. Groups and resources are created on a different tab.

Play around with mailadmin's account to get the hang of SKYRiXgreen. It's impressive- not only it is attractive, with nice translucent buttons, but easy to use and extremely functional. Palm sync, different calendar views, easy contacts navigation, build as elaborate file and rules structures as you like. It has one feature in particular that wins my heart- 'print view' for all functions, including messages, calendars, and contacts, which builds a nice printer-friendly page.

I tried it in all manner of browsers: Mozilla, Galeon, Netscape, Konqueror, Internet Explorer, and various versions thereof. All functionality was present, there were some differences in rendering. For example, the calendars and buttons sized differently, and there was browser-specific font funkiness. Nothing that SuSE has any control over. I am impressed that it works in so many browsers. How often do you see the dreaded words "requires Browser X"? There's no excuse for that.

Email Clients
SuSE email server supports all major email clients. Functionality, such as calendaring, contacts, and encryption vary with the mail client. Outlook users won't notice the difference when you retire Exchange and replace it with SuSE. Well actually they will- when it works better. You'll notice a huge difference: easier to administer, requires much less hardware, and way easier to backup.

Version 3.1 now includes a free/busy feature for Outlook and Evolution users. This a much-desired feature, now both Windows and Linux users can have it.

Licensing and Pricing
SuSE Linux eMail Server 3.1 costs $999 and requires no additional client licenses. In my opinion, this is the way server products should be licensed- charging per user is ludicrous. Source code is included, all components are free or open source, standards are adhered to and not morphed into proprietary gumbo. This means you are free to tinker under the hood as much as you like.

SuSE Linux eMail Server 3.1 gets my vote as the primo messaging server on any platform. Based on high-quality free and open source programs like Squirrelmail, OpenLDAP, Postfix, Linux, Cyrus IMAP, and so forth, it's a well-crafted, well-tuned package.

SuSE Linux eMail Server See the online demo.

» See All Articles by Columnist Carla Shroder

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