Geeks typically hate Exchange's automated meeting notifications, which may explain why a good implementation of that feature has yet to surface in an open source messaging server.

For many organisations, however, collaborative calendaring and scheduling are just as important as e-mail itself. That's why Novell's announcement of Hula -a new project to develop an open source, standards-based messaging server - should come as welcome news to IT shops everywhere.

At first glance, you might ask, "Why now?" There's no shortage of Exchange alternatives on the market already, several of which run on Linux.
The answer is that, although there are very solid contenders in this market, the question really isn't whether a given product is "good enough." The question is whether it is compelling enough to warrant the considerable challenge posed by migrating away from Exchange.

The numbers speak for themselves. Sysadmins can grumble all they want about its various failings, but in truth Exchange has served most IT departments reliably for years and keeps improving with each release. The real downside of Exchange for most shops lies not in its feature set but in its price tag.

Low sticker price alone isn't going to convince anyone to switch, however. The features have to be there as well. And this is where, to my mind, Exchange's competition has fallen short.
Handling mail is one thing, but past attempts to handle calendaring using Internet protocols have failed because they relied on their own unique ways of handling data interchange. This handling made interoperability an uphill battle, because it meant convincing the rest of the world to use a new, largely unproven system.

With the Hula project, Novell has thrown its weight behind CalDAV , a new open standard designed specifically for calendar data interchange via HTTP and WebDAV. Currently, CalDAV is only a draft with the IETF, but support from a major vendor such as Novell may be enough to push it into the status of a de facto standard. Next up: support for those all-important Outlook clients.

In addition to calendaring, Hula plans to offer a Web-based client UI "in the style of Google's Gmail." That's a tall order, but it's necessary to compete with Microsoft's (popular Outlook Web Access. To kick-start this effort (and the Hula project as a whole), Novell donated some source code from its NetMail Web-based messaging software.

Novell has said that future releases of the NetMail product will be derived from the Hula code base, but this isn't just another example of a company throwing an orphaned product over the wall to the open source community. Novell has reportedly assigned about 25 employees to the Hula open source project.

Whether or not Hula will eventually become the Exchange challenger everyone's waiting for remains to be seen, but I'm reservedly optimistic. Novell needs a strong hand in the messaging game to round out its network software strategy, just as the open source community needs alternatives to Microsoft's proprietary protocols. Come what may, though, it's certainly an encouraging trend to see large software vendors helping to provide open source alternatives to proprietary software especially for those features that, although essential, geeks might otherwise prefer to avoid.