BlogOpen-source tools we use to work remotely

Here we are, in mid-April 2020, and most businesses are already managing the stay-at-home mandates from their city, or otherwise are being prudent with the health of their employees. While many technology companies already supported working from home, many others didn’t prior to the pandemic, and so they’ve been suddenly venturing…no, shoved into uncharted seas.

April 19, 2020

Here at Planorama, we have been spread out globally from the very beginning.  I worked remotely for most of my career already, and it’s easy to take for granted the tools we used daily to communicate when physically apart.

We invest in tools that meet our business needs, balancing usability and affordability.  Sometimes we pay for SaaS tools, and other times we use open-source.  Here I’ll highlight two open-source communication tools that can save some money.  We’ve used Mattermost for over a year now with great success, and Jitsi is one we’re just starting to evaluate (but it looks promising).

Mattermost (alternative to Slack)

I’ve been a fan of Slack from the very beginning, but that’s also because I loved the speed and usability of IRC (Internet relay chat) servers back in the 90’s.  Now the remainder of digital humanity is acquiescing to what 90’s early adopters loved about the simplicity of text / channel communication.  However, while Slack is extremely popular, you’ll find that Mattermost is a worthy alternative…and in some ways, is better.

Having experience with Slack for many years, when I started Planorama I debated on it, knowing the financial obligation involved can be significant.  Then I found Mattermost, and from look and feel, it behaves nearly the same as Slack.  However, Mattermost has a notable significant advantage:  You can download the open-source version and deploy on your own infrastructure: e.g. in your own cloud or on premises.  For companies who must ensure all communication occurs and stored within their business’s IT borders, Mattermost can check that box.  That wasn’t necessarily a requirement for Planorama, but it certainly sets Mattermost apart.

At Planorama, I deployed Mattermost on a docker instance in our cloud, with all communication encrypted via SSL.  We use it through the website interface, and/or via web apps and mobile apps for iOS and Android (also created by the Mattermost community).  There are integrations available with the likes of Atlassian Jira and Google GSuite, and more.  And best of all, beyond the cost of your own infrastructure costs and time, it’s free.  This allows us to setup areas (what Mattermost calls “teams”) for our clients, with no additional per-user costs.

Jitsi (alternative to Zoom)

This is a very recent find, and one that I’m excited to share.  Jitsi is a free, open-source audio/video/screen-sharing meeting application, comparable to Google Hangouts or Zoom.  Like Mattermost, it can be installed within your own IT or cloud infrastructure, if that’s important for your business.

For Planorama, we are just beginning to evaluate Jitsi, alongside our existing SaaS conference service, Zoom.  One reason we will keep Zoom is for its cloud recording capability, which we use for all client meetings.  We plan to use Jitsi for all internal meetings that are typically not recorded.  If meeting recording isn’t a requirement, and a meeting application doesn’t come bundled with another service (as with GSuite or Microsoft 365), this may be an option to consider.

As a bonus, if you use Mattermost, there is a plugin for Jitsi to start meeting rooms via a slash command.  I love this, as sometimes conversations in Mattermost can evolve such that an immediate voice conversation would be better.  Kicking off a meeting right from there removes any barrier to the valuable conversation continuing.

Final Thoughts

For business tools which you don’t plan to build yourself, you should evaluate open-source vs. SaaS:   setup and support by you, vs. setup and supported by someone else.  As always, there are benefits and costs to each, and never an across the board clear winner for every company.  Both of these tools have setup tutorials to help with the process, but the installation and setup effort is technical and non-trivial.

All that said, for some businesses struggling to enable communication in the thick of this pandemic, these are viable and cost-effective tools to consider.

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