Rocket.Chat: open source self-hosted Slack alternative

The old ways of communicating digitally are slowly being made obsolete. There is no end to the attempts to kill email and SMS is now best known simply for spam and phishing. Even IRC, more tool more known to the tech-savvy crowd, is under siege from the likes of Slack.

Almost all of these new modes of communication, however, rely on proprietary, non-standard formats and protocols unlike their forebears. Fortunately, there are quite a number of open source projects to check all the right boxes. And when it comes to team communication, Rocket.Chat is right there at the top.

Why Slack?

But how did Slack become such a big deal that even the giant Microsoft felt threatened by it? Slack’s undeniable inspiration, after all, was IRC and very few outside of Linux users, open source developers, and “old timers” are well acquainted with it. So it wasn’t like Slack was offering to replace a tool that was widely and critically used by businesses, especially the well-paying ones.

No, what Slack replaced instead was actually a set of often disparate and loosely-connected collaboration and communication services. It was like it it combined instant group messaging, e-mail, docs, and more, into one app and service. Its IRC roots became superficial at most and a footnote in history at least. In other words, Slack is all about team collaboration and putting all your team’s eggs in one proprietary basket that you don’t own, much less control.

Rocket.Chat takes off

Like with any shiny new proprietary product, there was a burning desire to have an open source version of Slack. But unlike most such burning desires, a daring few actually made the move not just to make a Slack clone but to even build a sustainable business around it.

Rocket.Chat appeared almost out of nowhere but in the two or so years since it has been available to the public, Rocket.Chat has matured from something that looked exactly like a Slack clone into one of the open source world’s top contenders in that market.

Like any of the new breed of team communication services, Rocket.Chat is designed to replace both real-time chat and email, the latter of which is done more through private chats or private groups. It offers rich text formatting, “@” direct addressing, audio and video chats, and even real-time translations. For admins, Rocket.Chat offers a variety of integrations, plugins, and APIs to extend and customize the software as each team needs.

Chat anywhere from anywhere

Rocket.Chat is available on all major operating systems, open and closed alike. That means Linux, Android, Windows, macOS, and iOS, though the official mobile clients can be a bit unreliable at times. But as long as you have a modern, standards-compliant, Javascript-enabled web browser, you’re good to go. You will need to connect to a server, of course, which is where things might get a bit icky. As you might have probably judged by the title, you have to host the Rocket.Chat server yourself.

The easiest way to do this would be to use the Snap version that Rocket.Chat provides. Those who need to go the manual installation route, however, need only ensure their server has the necessary dependencies, namely Node.js, MongoDB, curl, and Graphicsmagick, installed. The installation bundle that they provide more or less automates the process but they thankfully have clear documentation on how to do so, at least for the most popular web server distributions (Debian, RedHat, CentOS, Ubuntu).

It might scare off some smaller teams but the benefits outweigh the one-time setup and maintenance. You control everything and can modify or customize the experience as your company or team needs. You own and control your data and can keep it as safe as you can. But for startups that don’t yet have the capability to host their own instance, much less maintain it, Rocket.Chat now also offers hosted services starting at $50 a month. You’ll have to trust them to keep your data private and secure, of course. Then again, you’re also already trusting them by using their software in the first place.

Not the only game in town

Rocket.Chat isn’t going to appeal to everyone, just as Slack isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Fortunately, there is no shortage of open source team communication software that have sprung up ever since Slack became hot.

Let’s Chat is a close relative of Rocket.Chat, built using the same frameworks and sharing a family resemblance to Slack. It’s also self-hosted, of course, and can integrate with your server’s existing Kerberos or LDAP setup to avoid duplication of user accounts and access.

Mattermost veers slightly away from the cookie-cutter appearance and frameworks by using the rather young Golang programming language and React instead of Node. It boasts of support for some of Slack’s webhook integrations to make switching to an open source solution even less painful. It’s mobile app is particularly special in how it allows instant voice recording and upload right then and there. is the odd one of the bunch, at least in this context. Not really a Slack clone, it is more a client for Matrix, the hot new open source network for federated messaging. And just like Matrix, actually has bridges to communication services, including Slack and IRC.

That’s just scratching the tip of the team collaboration iceberg. There are still others like Zulip and, of course, good old IRC itself, which remains simple, lightweight, and open. Suffice it to say, you’ll never run out of open source options for keeping team communication secure and within your control.

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