SaaS collaboration tool goes open source

Users have the right to know what is under the hood, says founder

Christchurch’s Onlinegroups.net has officially launched its software-as-a-service for online collaboration. At the same time, the company has released GroupServer, the software that powers the service, as open source.

Onlinegroups.net aims to make online groups and sites easily available, without administration costs, says the company’s founder and CEO, Dan Randow.

The website, which has around 14,000 users worldwide, offers message boards, file-sharing, chat and discussion forums, suitable for virtual groups, inter-agency collaboration or hosted extranets, he says. Groups sit on a site of their own, which can be customised with logos, varying colour schemes and site introductions.

Public group sites are cost-free, while premium sites, with private work spaces, are charged with a subscription fee, says Randow. The main difference between Onlinegroups.net and other group collaboration sites, such as Yahoo Groups and Google, is that Onlinegroups.net is completely advertising-free, he says.

Every online group has its own email address. Emails are distributed to all group members, depending on the email delivery settings, says Randow. Files attached to emails are uploaded to the site, with a link to the file in the email. This way, files do not clutter up the inbox, he says. Logged-in users can also post messages and files via the website.

Randow and his team of three decided to open source GroupServer because they thought it made sense that online community software be built by a community. Randow believes the software will benefit from contributions from the open source community. The team also wanted its customers to be able to inspect the system that is storing their data, so they can be reassured the data are safe, he says.

“Our users have the right to know what is under the hood,” he says.

The journey towards building GroupServer began in 2002, when Randow’s company provided an online learning platform for a post-graduate business school. For group collaboration, the school used Yahoo Groups, but, as the number of groups grew to over 300, problems mounted, says Randow. The registration system was complicated and it was difficult to point students to the right group, because they all had different URLs. In addition, the groups were located in amongst other arbitrary groups, and the advertising was often not appropriate for a business school, he says.

But, despite the problems, the school wanted a way for its students to be able to interact with their online groups, using email, the web or both, he says. Randow tried to find an e-learning platform that provided that same functionality, but could not find any suitable software. However, he did find some open source components that provided most of what he wanted — and some developers who could integrate the components. The business school agreed to the open source development approach, and GroupServer was developed and in production within a couple of months, says Randow.

In 2004, US-based site e-democracy.org discovered GroupServer. The non-profit project provided some resources to develop features that would make GroupServer more useful for public sites, says Randow, and in 2005, e-democracy.org migrated all of its forums to a GroupServer site, he says. Today, over 8,000 e-democracy.org members use GroupServer.

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