4 open source chat applications for team collaboration

4 open source alternatives to Slack for team chat

Open source team chat
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What is your favorite open source Slack alternative?

In any collaborative environment, it's important to have good tools for communication. What tools work best for you depend a bit on your situation, but might include anything from mailing lists for email communication, Git or Subversion for version control, a wiki or Etherpad for collaborative authoring, a shared task list for organizing workflow, or even a full fledged project management suite.

One collaboration tool which is becoming increasingly indispensable is team chat. Whether your colleagues are sitting across the room from you or on the other side of the planet, the ability to communicate in real time makes many conversations faster, easier, and can help reduce confusion that might emerge in asynchronous communication.

There's still a perception out there in some circles that chat applications can be a distraction, and I do believe it's important to have a commitment to reel in off-topic threads before they create a cognitive disruption. And it's equally important to be able to give yourself the space to work uninterrupted when you have tasks that require longer periods of concentration. As I write this, for example, I'm using at least two team collaboration tools, but the notifications are silenced so that I can check in periodically as the breaks in my work allow for it, just as I silence social media notifications when I really need to get stuff done.

I would advocate that for your team collaboration needs, you pick a tool that's exclusive to work, though not everyone agrees on this. Personally, I find it too easy to be distracted by non-work conversations when I reuse the chat feature of, say, a social media tool. I like to keep work separate so I can turn off personal communications when I'm at work, and vice versa. But do what works best for your team.

Recently, Slack has quickly become the darling of software development circles, leading to displacement of many other tools. An article in The Next Web earlier this year proclaimed "Slack is quietly, unintentionally killing IRC," and this switch has also come to many open source communities. The developers behind Wordpress, for example, have switched to Slack for their team communications.

But Slack is a closed source SaaS tool, and it's far from the only name in the game. In fact, open source might be critical to your business chat needs. If you work with sensitive information, or need to make sure that all communication stays behind a firewall, self-hosting might be your best option. And access to the source helps you ensure that the communication between you and your team isn't seeping out of your control through some nefarious addition to the codebase.

Let's look at four open source alternatives, from old classics to brand new, that might be a good fit for you and your team's chat needs.

IRC

You didn't think we'd be able to start this list off without talking a little more about IRC, did you? Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, is a protocol which dates back to the late 1980s. Since it's been around so long, there are numerous open source implementations on both the client and the server side.

Coming with its age, however, are numerous drawbacks. It lacks many features one might expect in a modern chat client, from security to identity management to even just being able to easily transmit non-text components, like images, files, or emoticons (the latter might be seen as a plus to some, however). Some features have been implemented after-the-fact through bot services, including nickname management, logging, and other features, but these vary from server to server.

IRC does still have some things going for it, though. It's nearly universal, and clients are available for basically every platform out there. Though the command-driven interface isn't necessarily intuitive for beginners, many clients re-implement commands through a GUI. And if you're doing upstream open source development, there's a good chance you're already hanging out in IRC anyway, so adding a team server might be a path of least resistance.


XChat, one of many open source IRC clients. Screenshot by Jason Baker.

Let's Chat

A more modern approach to team chat is a program called Let's Chat, which is released under an MIT license and written on top of the popular Node.js platform. It comes with many of the things you might expect if you're familiar with a client like Slack: image embeds, @ mentions, file uploads, logging, etc. It features multiple rooms, which are a must if you're working on a team of more than a couple of people. And it's easy to install and self-host, either through a traditional method or by using Docker or Vagrant, or as a part of Sandstorm.io if you're deploying other tools for your team.

Let's Chat can also integrate with your existing Kerberos or LDAP authentication server, so you can use the same login you use across the rest of your organization. And it features an API so you can extend it or connect it with other tools. Want to try it out? Here's an online demo, although it's worth noting the demo doesn't implement all of the features available in the project, including file upload.


Screenshot courtesy Let's Chat repository.

Mattermost

Mattermost is another very modern approach to team chat. Currently in its beta release, Mattermost is written in Golang with a good chunk of JavaScript under the React framework. It features private and public chats, including one on one communication, good archival support, and a very similar interface to Slack, including most of the features you've come to expect there. In fact, if you're already using Slack, there's an easy import function which lets you move over your current channels and archives. Mattermost also integrates into your organization's existing LDAP or Active Directory authentication systems.

One feature I really like is the ability to upload sound, video, or images directly from your mobile device, which seems handy when communicating on the go. Mattermost is licensed under an "Apache-wrapped AGPL" which is not unlike the license for MongoDB. Check out the source code on GitHub, or give it a try with its easy Docker-based installation.


Screenshot courtesy Mattermost.org

Rocket.chat

Rocket.Chat is the final alternative I'll spotlight here; it's a newer project also in public beta which is written in CoffeeScript and JavaScript on top of the Meteor framework. Like the two others directly above, Rocket.Chat is designed for you to download and run on-premise with with a web client interface for either desktop or mobile access. It hosts many of the same features as other modern clients, from desktop notifications to image and file uploads to an archived history with search, and integration with LDAP. Planned and in the roadmap are a native Android application, Kerberos support, and integration with many other tools from GitLab to antivirus tool for attached files.

Rocket.Chat features an online demo, and you can check out its source code on GitHub as well. Rocket.Chat is available under an MIT license.


Screenshot courtesy Rocket.chat

Other options

The list above is far from exhaustive, and I encourage you to look around and try a few others out before you make a decision. Have another favorite that didn't make the list? Let us know in the comments below so everyone can check it out!

This article was originally published in November 2015 and last updated in June 2016.

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22 Comments

robinmuilwijk

Good article Jason. In the eZ Systems community I'm active in, the community itself initiated the move from iRC to Slack. We honestly have not looked at alternatives, which are open source.

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Hx

I'd like to recommend to stop using xchat. It's not been developed since 2010 and with hexchat there is an active fork available.

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Jason Baker

I'll have to check it out. I've tried quite a few desktop IRC clients (ever since I got sick of mIRC in what, the late 90s?) through the years, and haven't really _loved_ any of them, but it's been a while since I've looked.

I'm actually particularly fond of Irssi these days.

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Hx

I'd say the Jabber/XMPP group chat feature has seen a quite good adoption rate, often with openfire as the server which also provides LDAP integration. But in the end it's more on the level of IRC if you look at the not so fancy feature list.

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Jason Baker

Thanks. I considered including XMPP in this list. There are definitely some XMPP users out there, but the ambiguity around adoption of the protocol by some big names (AIM, then later Google Talk) leaves me feeling a little uncertain about its future (particularly for someone looking to switch from a modern client like Slack).

But for sure it's worth checking out!

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sethkenlon

Within the strict firewall at work, we use a private Jabber/XMPP chat (most users interface with it via Pidgin) server for lots of discussions. That plus an internal install of a Discourse forum, and the effective result is pretty similar to Slack.

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Kenzie

We've been looking for team collaboration tool with chat feature from long, tried basecamp, asana, evernote and so many other tools but they were having limited features. They were good for task management but we were missing chat feature. Then, we managed to find a tool which meets all our requirements. Proofhub is the best tool for collaboration, has native chat which makes it a lot easier to get instant replies/clarifications from team members. Other than this, its report feature really helps us in tracking the project progress. So far, this is the best collaboration tool we've ever experienced in our work - life.

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Jeff Potts

Dropbox just announced they are releasing Zulip, team collaboration software they acquired in 2014, under an Apache license, see https://blogs.dropbox.com/tech/2015/09/open-sourcing-zulip-a-dropbox-hac...

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Jason Baker

I just saw that yesterday. Very interesting, I look forward to checking it out. Thanks for sharing this here!

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Matthew Hodgson

You forgot Matrix.org - an open standard that provides an entirely decentralised modern alternative to IRC and proprietary chat systems (disclaimer: I work on it :)

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Jason Baker

Interesting. Would you be interested in submitting an article about the protocol and maybe one or two of the open source clients for it? Seems like something people here would be interested to learn more about!

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tawster

I would personally love to read more about the project and architecture of martix.org.

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Jakob Perry

Unfortunately, all of these open source apps cost money for communities by needing to be self-hosted. Drupal, for instance, has been contemplating such a move: https://www.drupal.org/node/2490332 -- with no decision or even leaning towards a solution yet.

This discussion also occurred at Community Leadership Summit 2015. Freenode gives free IRC hosting, which has saved us and most other F/OSS communities from having to do it ourselves. While data ownership is a big feature/complaint of the cloud, arguably its better than the current solution of no history at all with stock IRC.

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Jason Baker

The cost factor is definitely an important point, although using "free" public infrastructure also has its own costs. For example, at this particular moment, Freenode is down because of a DDoS attack.

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kael.shipman

The cost of a virtual private server these days is as low as $17 per month (less than my phone bill, and probably less than many devs spend on coffee). I think we need to recognize VPSes as money well spent. Also, it seems perfectly conceivable to me that an open-source hosting company might emerge someday soon, offering at-cost VPSes to open-source projects (idea! wink wink!).

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kael.shipman

Hey all,

Please remember to cast your votes on alternativeto.net, too. Alternativeto.net is an important resource for -- you guessed it -- alternatives, and while these opensource.com polls can be fun, they don't contribute to the very important solution that alternativeto.net offers.

Kael

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Leo Shrayber

Hi Kael

I am in the logistics field. I have an idea involving team collaboration tool specifically for my industry. If you have have time I would like to talk to you about it. Reply to this message, we will connect.

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SudoTemp
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EugeneM

I've recently started this open source chat application for django
Hope will time to develop it further
https://emakarov.github.io/django-parakeet/

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adem.dz

Hello Can you explain the installation and thanks to the effort

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Tal Barenboim

Try riot.im based on matrix.org open source protocol.

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Shibasis Patel

I like riot.im and gitter chat

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