Two years ago I tested Collabora’s Libreoffice Online for the first time. While it looked promising, a number of important features I required were still missing such as spell checking, style modification, selection of modified text and style handling of foot notes. Recently I came back to see what progress they have made and came away quite impressed!
My Setup – Let’s Give This Docker Container A Try
As I had an immediate use case I decided to give Libreoffice Online another try and install it directly in a virtual machine. Collabora’s solution integrates into Nextcloud of which I also have a running instance at home. However, that Nextcloud is mission critical so I decided not to touch it but to instead create another instance instead. I then went ahead and installed Collabora’s Docker container that contains everything that is needed on the Libreoffice side and the Nextcloud plug-in app that connects Nextcloud with the Online Office container. With a bit of knowledge about Apache or nginx installation and configuration and how to use two different domain names in the web server’s setup, things would have been quite straight forward and I could have been done it in an hour. Unfortunately, Collabora has a nasty bug as it doesn’t support hyphen characters in domain names. It took me several hours to figure this out but once I found out and used a different domain name, the remaining configuration was easy.
VM and Connectivity Requirements
At most I have about 2-3 Writer and Calc documents open on the server that one or several people work with concurrently and 1.5 – 2 GB of memory for the VM seem to be enough for that. Presentations are supported as well but I haven’t touched that part so far. From a CPU point of view I run the solution in a VM on a 7th generation core i3 mobile CPU and with a fast Internet connection (40 Mbit/s in the uplink direction). With this setup there is no disturbing delay or panning even when 2-3 people work on an Excel document or a 5 page word document with embedded pictures. The CPU gets quite loaded however, so its not a free ride.
Working with LibreOffice Online in Practice
I take it that most processing is done on the server and not in the web browser which includes rendering the documents people are working with on the server and then updating panes (sections) by sending a bitmap to the web browser on the other end. One can see the effect when scrolling fast and even when the server is close-by there is a very short but still noticeable delay when editing. One can perfectly work with this but the difference to running LibreOffice locally can definitely be felt.
Comparison With Other Cloud Office Packages
I compared this behavior with other cloud based office solutions such as Office 365 and Google docs and saw the same effects there, too. Needless to say that I would never seriously considering using those for my private documents because neither the software nor my data resides on my server. With LibreOffice Online on the other hand, everything runs and is stored on my own servers and the software is open source.
The feature set is nowhere near what LibreOffice offers on the desktop but I found little lacking for my purposes. Styles work, footnotes work, formatting works, spell checking works in several languages, change bar and comments functionality works as well. Even special characters like French accents work flawlessly.
Sharing and Simultaneous Editing
Having some of my documents online serves two purposes for me. The first one is that rather than sending documents every time I have modified them to other people, I can just send them links and whenever these are used, the latest version of the document is presented. The second advantage is that I can allow others to edit the documents so there is no need for them to send them around after commenting or extending them. This completely eliminates the mess created by multiple versions of the documents flying around with inline comments and corrections. And the final bonus, that works very well in practice, is, that people can work simultaneously on a document. In practice several cursors with names are shown. Very nice!
Where’s The Limit?
The software has its limits, however. 50 page documents with lots of footnotes and plastered with comments and tracked corrections makes the online office suite start behaving visually somewhat unpredictably. I haven’t had this problem with my documents yet but another user has shown me a document that was riddled with comments and tracked corrections from several people and thus looked like a colorful but totally unordered rainbow. At this point, editing started to become very difficult for her and it was time to download the document and continue locally. So while you can expect wonders its not doing miracles yet.
All in all, it’s a great solution and while I haven’t run an update yet, its likely that the Docker container approach will hopefully make this straight forward and fast as well. Well done, Collabora, thank you very much!