When you start learning about digital sovereignty as a non-techie, you start to realise that something as ordinary as sending emails is highly vulnerable in terms of how data is used and stored. If one wants to continue learning at this point, it is worth scratching the surface a little and trying to understand how data is transmitted and/or stored in the background of daily email communication.
IMAP is certainly the best-known Internet protocol that everyone who has ever set up an e-mail account has heard of. IMAP stands for Internet Message Access Protocol and is required for downloading e-mails from a mail server. The IMAP protocol is an old-timer from the 1980s and allows users to access their e-mails from anywhere (including e-mail folders) because all e-mails are stored on the external mail server. Users receive a copy of the message in their local mailbox and at the same time a copy is stored on the server.
IMAP synchronises the mailbox between the cloud and the email client. When synchronising, each email in each folder is compared. This transfer costs time, energy and data volume, and synchronisation errors are possible during the transfer. As far as digital sovereignty is concerned, it makes sense to know where and on which mail server one’s own emails are located and which legal requirements the server provider has to fulfil (or not). As far as data protection and data transfer are concerned, one should be aware of its central storage. Every query from one’s own device carries the risk of security breaches, i.e. connections to the server should be encrypted. Usually, one can set in one’s email client when the server should be queried for new messages.
In contrast to IMAP, MAPI is a complete groupware interface. MAPI was originally developed by Microsoft. In 1987, the company formed an MS Mail team, but it was not until 1991, after the acquisition of Consumers Software, that there was a messaging product. Revised, Microsoft sold it as MS PC Mail (or Microsoft Mail for PC Networking).
The basic API of MS PC Mail was later called MAPI version 0 (or MAPI0) to distinguish it from “real” MAPI. MAPI has been “fully” documented since 2007. MAPI (short for Messaging Application Programming Interface) was created for communication between MS Outlook in conjunction with the MS Exchange Server and synchronises e-mails as well as contacts, calendars, shared address books, etc. – in other words, all the data found in a groupware solution. MAPI is intended to ensure the efficient and reliable administration of all kinds of data and many users. As with IMAP, all data is stored centrally with MAPI.
Anyone who depends on a well-functioning groupware on the desktop every day, e.g. for smooth collaboration within a company, should therefore pay attention to whether it can “only” do IMAP or has a MAPI interface so that calendars, contacts, etc. are also always up to date. The MAPI architecture is equipped with a push functionality, i.e. changes to one user are simultaneously displayed to his/her colleague. Kopano Groupware uses MAPI in its own open source solution, which enables extremely low-load synchronisations.
Z-Push – the Open Source ActiveSync
With increasing digitalisation and thus also the increased use of mobile devices, it has become necessary that daily communication on these devices is also permanently synchronised, i.e. always up to date in real time. Microsoft uses Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) for this purpose, which is based on SyncML (a specification for data synchronisation) and supplemented with MAPI properties.
The popularity of SyncML, which was originally launched in December 2000 by the SyncML Initiative (a non-profit public benefit initiative; it merged into the Open Mobile Alliance in 2002), grew with Microsoft’s use and became a “lived industry standard”. With EAS, emails, contacts, calendar entries, tasks and notes are synchronised from a mail server to a mobile device.
The synchronisation, which is less transfer-intensive than with IMAP, also follows a different logic: not every e-mail is synchronised, but “only” changes are documented on the server and the device. I.e. a “dormant connection” is permanently active from the smartphone to the server, which is immediately used by both sides in the event of changes.
Z-Push is an open source implementation for using Active Sync in the server software and was developed with the collaboration of Zarafa and Kopano. Basically, Z-Push works like ActiveSync on the (Microsoft) Exchange Server, but optimised with some features such as its own detection of synchronisation problems and the possibility to open folders and mailboxes (assuming that authorisation has been granted).
MySQL vs. MariaDB
Every web application, including daily e-mail communication, cannot do without a database management system. Once this has been installed and set up, databases (e.g. address books in the case of the e-mail programme) can be inserted and provided with access rights and administration functions. A database language is necessary for this – the best known is SQL (Structured Query Language).
The oldest (since about 1995) and best-known database management system is the open source project MySQL by the Finnish software developer Michael “Monty” Widenius. MySQL was sold to Sun Microsystems in 2008, and in 2010 Sun was taken over by Oracle – a controversial IT company in the open source community. Widenius, along with other core MySQL developers, left the software project in 2009 and developed MariaDB, a fork of MySQL 5.1 that evolved over time into a database management system in its own right. MariaDB has a strong focus on open development. The focus is on two principles:
- The source code of parts of the programme under development is available via public repositories.
- All development steps are publicly documented.
MySQL is marketed by Oracle as a licence model. Widenius founded the MariaDB Foundation in 2012, among other things to ensure that an open-source MySQL version is always available. With regular updates he ensured that MariaDB and MySQL remained compatible. This succeeded until MySQL version 8.
In contrast to MySQL, MariaDB offers more flexibility. Users can use a variety of alternative database engines for special applications. MariaDB also scores in terms of performance and a much more differentiated encryption compared to MySQL. Kopano Groupware uses MariaDB in the backend.
For companies that are considering switching their proprietary groupware to an open source provider or want to start from scratch with open source groupware, Kopano groupware actually offers a strong and effective alternative on all levels that are important for digital sovereignty from a company for which open source is deeply rooted in the corporate culture: a high-quality and contemporary groupware interface with open source MAPI instead of IMAP, a high-performance and digitally sustainable synchronisation solution with Z-Push and an extremely future-proof database connection with MariaDB.
Credits: Many thanks to Andreas Rösler, Anke Pawla and Felix Bartels for your support to this article! :-)