Introduction to Zimlets
Introduction to Zimbra Architecture
When you think about the Internet chances are you immediately think about the World Wide Web. However it was E-Mail that was the Internet’s first “killer application.” The most common Email environments, such as Exchange and Notes, are hard to customize which has led to organizations being forced to adapt to how their tools do things, rather then adapting the tools to their needs.
Unlike the chaotic nature of the web, E-Mail tends to be highly structured and centralized. This helps to explain why proprietary applications such as Exchange and Notes have been the only real choice for enterprise messaging. Both platforms are hard to customize which has led to organizations being forced to adapt to how Exchange and Notes do things, rather then adapting Exchange and Notes to their needs.
Zimbra is an Open Source program that marries the best of E-mail with the flexibility and accessibility of the web. In this series of articles Joshua Prismon will teach you how to extend Zimbra to reflect your needs.
At the simplest level Zimbra is a complete mail and calendaring platform. The platform is capable of sending and receiving email via the standard email protocol that the Internet uses for email: SMTP. Zimbra can also support specific types of email – email about calendar events, tasks, and general documents. All of this functionality can be expanded by developers. In this shortcut we will expand our functionality in three ways. For the first example this document will show you how to integrate syndicated data directly into the Zimbra Web Client. The second example will take that a bit farther by integrate outside data sources into the user’s experience. Finally we will integrate a full application into Zimbra allowing users to be more productive without ever leaving their email. These extensions are possible because Zimbra is open source. Open source not only means that the platform is expandable, but it also is lower risk to corporations. Zimbra can be extended without having to depend on closed APIs. Services can be written in such a manner that they work for your users even if you move to a different platform in the future. Zimbra consists of server backend which sends and receives mail and two web-based front ends. The first front end is the administration interface which allows for easy management of the server. The second front end is that of the standard user application: the Zimbra Web Client.
The ZWC, shown in Figure 1, has tabs along the top for each of its major functions: Mail, Address Book, Calendar, Tasks, Documents and Options. The interface looks familiar to anyone who has used products such as Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird, or other web mail applications. Messages can be sent, received, saved, and deleted. Calendars and events can be managed. There is also functionality for contact management, centralized documents, task management and individual user options.
An Internet Application
There are two popular models for email services today: web mail pages and dedicated desktop applications. The “web mail” approach has become more popular with the rise of free mail services such as HotMail. In this approach a user connects to the webmail server via a web browser. The browser requests the start page from the server. The server validates the user. Once the user is valid the web server pulls the email messages using a protocol like IMAP and then converts messages from their native format into html. Finally that HTML back to the client. The user reads, deletes, or composes new messages using different pages that are provided by the server. There are a few drawbacks to this model:
- The biggest drawback is that the model is almost completely server based. Any change in functionality requires access to the server, where the programmer manipulates the HTML output in a message to contain the functionality.
- Because HTML wasn’t designed for rich interactive applications, the interface tends to be clunky. The browser buttons (Home, Back, etc.) don't map well to tasks in an email application.
- The server must create an entire HTML page for every function the user wants to do and send it to the client. This is bandwidth intensive and a drag on performance.
- The single-page HTML model also breaks the principle of separation of concerns, because the HTML generated is a mix of data, presentation markup, and bits for managing the application (links to other pages to send new email, delete messages, etc).
- The client has no sense of state, so the server must do additional magic to keep track of each client.
This approach can be contrasted to programs that run directly on the desktop. In this model each machine has a specialized program that speaks its own exotic protocol to a dedicated server which provides email and calendar information back to the client. The server doesn’t need to worry about how to display the data or how to keep track of every user. The desktop application does that for them. The desktop application is written for the local operating system and has access to rich user interface API’s that webmail applications can not access. Of course desktop email applications have their set of drawbacks too.
- To access email, users must have the client installed on their machine. This results in more maintenance requirements for IT departments, more investments in hardware and software, location dependence (you can't use your mother's computer to read your mail when you are on a visit to her), and possibly in vendor lock-in.
- Extendibility is hard, because extensions must be written for the same platform the client is in. To run on different hardware or different operating system, both the desktop application and the extensions must be ported.
- Extensions can not easily access the Internet.
AJAX and Mashups
Microsoft and XmlHttpRequest
The functionality that Zimbra and the rest of the Web 2.0 applications utilize was created by Microsoft. Microsoft was trying to create a proprietary web application that would mimic their Outlook desktop application. To get around the page refresh problems they introduced a new ActiveX object designed to interact directly with the server without needing a HTML reload: XmlHttpRequest.
- Paul Ambrose
Zimbra provides several extension methods that isolate you from the complexities of the ZWC. This shortcut will walk you through three different extensions that correspond to three stages of functionality and flexibility. The first and most simple is the built in RSS and iCal support which is directly integrated into Zimbra’s calendar and folder areas. The second stage will use outside services to aggregate and manipulate data in a way that can integrate with Zimbra’s mail view window. The final stage will show you how to integrate a full application into Zimbra.