Roundcube Webmail Review: Can It Be a Good Self-Hosted Gmail Alternative?

You are probably familiar with the various free web based email solutions that are available today. Services like Yahoo Mail, Outlook.com and Gmail are used by millions of people all over the world. Such services are great for personal email, but what about business emails? Many businesses have their own domain name, website and maybe even a e-commerce solution. Business email addresses tend to use the company’s domain name rather than @outlook.com or @gmail.com etc. So Bob Smith, the accountant at  Sporty Shoe Warehouse, would probably have the email address “bob.smith@sportyshoewarehouse.com” or some variation of that.

This is great, but the Sporty Shoe Warehouse needs to have an internal email server along with the client software to read the emails. Then there is the issue of backups and so on. To remove this burden from system admins, companies like Google offer webmail services which work using the company’s own domain name and with their own branding. This means to access the email service each employee just needs a device (PC, laptop, tablet etc) with a web browser.

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Google’s solution clearly has lots of advantages, but for small companies or organizations there is one problem, it costs money. Roundcube is an open source webmail project that allows small organizations to offer web based email to its employees/members.

Roundcube is designed to work on a standard LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) server and can sit comfortably on a company’s hosting solution. It actually supports a range of different web servers and databases and isn’t necessarily tied to Apache or MySQL, however PHP is a must. The idea is that the server running a company’s website can also offer webmail access. All emails sent to recipients at the company’s domain are stored on that server, and accessed via the Roundcube webmail interface.

As a webmail solution, Roundcube has all the basic functionality you would expect, including send, receive, reply, forward, reply all and delete. It also supports folders and sub-folders. Messages can be flagged as well as marked as read or unread. Which messages are currently displayed can be selected via a drop down list. You have the choice of All, Unread, Flagged, Unanswered and so on. This can be quite useful if your Inbox is starting to get cluttered!

The “Compose” window allows you to write emails in plain text or in HTML. The latter allows you to add formatting like bold, italics, etc. Attachments are added by dragging them to the compose window, or you can use the “Attach a file” button and use a file open dialog to find the file you want to add to the message. You can also select which of your identities will be used to send an email. This is very useful if you want an email to come from your personal email address or if you want to use a generic company mailbox like “support” or “sales”. When defining identities, you can also set a custom signature.

Roundcube also has a fairly sophisticated address book. As well as an email address, you can store phone numbers, addresses, URLs and even a photo for each contact. The address book also supports groups. Contacts can be added to one or more groups and all the people in that group can be emailed together by just addressing a message to the group name. There is also an import function so that you can bring your addresses from other email clients. Roundcube can import vCards or CSV (comma-separated) files.

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One of the powerful features of Gmail is its ability to search for messages quickly. Roundcube also provides a search function which can search not only in the “To:” field or “From:” field, but also in other fields like “Subject:” or even in the entire message. The search feature isn’t as advanced as Gmail, and its speed will depend on the underlying mail server and the size of your mailbox.

In direct comparison with Gmail, Roundcube is missing several collaborative/productivity features including instant messaging (Hangouts), tasks and a calendar. The latter is on Roundcube’s TODO list, but there doesn’t seem to be any plans for adding the other two. However, Roundcube does allow for third parties to write plugins, and plugins for tasks and calendaring already exist.

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Mail functions like spam filtering, automatic forwarding and mailbox aliases aren’t managed by Roundcube as these are mail server functions. Since Roundcube is mail server agnostic it isn’t able to tweak the server level configuration. There may be plugins for some of these, but an advantage of Gmail is that all these functions are integrated directly into the web interface.

Gmail is also integrated into Google’s other services like Google Drive and G+. These are beyond Roundcube’s scope, but they do make Gmail part of a bigger whole, something which Roundcube alone can’t provide. While Google Apps (or any other similar services) is a great email and productivity service for businesses, it comes with a cost that can easily escalate with the number of users. On the plus side, Roundcube is free (in terms of license and cost) which means it could be an ideal solution for small organization who want to offer webmail to its members either as a primary or secondary service.

Have you tried Roundcube? Is it good enough for your business?