SAN MATEO (03/06/2000) - The word "groupware" conjures images of big servers, costly licenses, and administrative hassles. The likes of Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes, and Novell GroupWise get your people connected, but exact a high cost in time and manpower. If you need online collaboration but you're not ready to devote a whole department to running it, consider SiteScape Inc.'s Forum.
SiteScape Forum 5.0 is Web-based from stem to stern. It manages group discussions, group scheduling, and file sharing without mystical command-line tools, special client software, or the need for two-week classes in exotic locales. Forum installs in ten minutes. After that, the only tool you need to use or manage it is a Web browser. The appeal of its ease of use is somewhat offset by its newly raised price and less-than-stellar performance in Windows.
However, with no client licenses for you to buy, Forum remains a good deal for larger organizations.
Many groupware solutions offer a Web interface, but often Web-based users are forced to endure restricted functionality. Because Forum 5.0's only link to humans is via your Web server, every feature of the system is available to every user. Similarly, although Forum 5.0 runs on multiple types of servers, it presents the same face to users regardless of platform. And remote users and administrators benefit not only from a fully functional Web-based solution, but also from good performance, because SiteScape designed Forum with minimal graphics. Even your dial-up users will find Forum welcoming.
Built on solid ground
Forum has come a long way since Version 4.1, but its traditional groupware strengths -- threaded discussions, real-time chat, and group scheduling -- remain intact. As with Forum 4.1, the new release has powerful importing features, allowing users to rope in content from Usenet newsgroups, mailing lists, and automatically tracked Web sites. Remote users can still take part in discussions via e-mail by sending their submissions to a special Forum address and by receiving change notifications in the same way. And Forum still supports binary attachments in e-mail submissions and notifications.
The most noticeable change in Forum 5.0 is its look and feel. Although it still won't win any design awards, the new interface is a big improvement over Version 4.1's tired appearance. More importantly, Forum 5.0 ushers in Web templates. Using the SiteScape-supplied templates as a guide, I could customize Forum's look in no time. SiteScape embeds Tcl (Tool Command Language) scripts in its HTML templates to provide links to Forum server functions. If you're familiar with Active Server Pages or Java Server Pages, you'll have no trouble customizing Forum 5.0's appearance.
Together on the Web
Today's teams are scattered, and team members use all kinds of machines to get their jobs done. Although groupware makes it easy to share a small number of files by attaching them to messages or sending them in a chat session, efficient access to a whole hierarchy of files is not a traditional groupware feature.
Forum 5's new Web File System gives each user a Web-based file store and allows teams to share files with each other. Via their browsers, users upload and download files using a simple two-paned interface vaguely reminiscent of Windows Explorer. Because the Web File System maps virtual file stores directly to directories on the server, changes in the Web File System's content are reflected immediately.
The Web File System does not rely on modern browsers' support of FTP or WebDAV (Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning). Forum manages its own uploads, downloads, and file listings. Users with older browsers have the same access to files as those running the latest offerings from Microsoft and Netscape.
Forum 5.0 is a breeze to install, configure, and maintain. The online documentation is greatly improved over Forum 4.1. The new help documents are context-sensitive, and they've been trimmed to be less burdensome for your bandwidth-challenged users.
I managed to install Forum, set up a couple of sample teams, and generate content (imported and original) in one afternoon. I particularly like the Web File System. It is much easier to use than the typical public folders model.
My gripes with Forum 5.0 are few. Performance was disappointing on a reasonably speedy Windows NT server (dual 400-MHz Pentium II processors, 192MB of RAM), with noticeable lag times between submissions and responses and marked spikes in server CPU utilization in between. When I tested Forum 4.1 on Linux last year, I experienced no performance issues.
I'm also disappointed in SiteScape's boost in pricing. Forum 5.0 costs $6,995, a $3,000 jump from Forum 4.1. Forum imposes no per-client license fees, and its standard features compare favorably with those of competitors. Still, it's a big price increase and one that might give some prospective buyers cause to look at other solutions.
SiteScape Forum 5.0's greatest value lies in its ease of deployment, use, and management. If your IT department is long on user requests for groupware but short on resources, Forum might be your deliverance. Forum practically installs, configures, and supports itself, freeing your staff for more important tasks.
Tom Yager (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an InfoWorld senior analyst. His book, Windows 2000 Web Applications Development, is due in April from Prentice Hall.
THE BOTTOM LINE: VERY GOOD
SiteScape Forum 5.0
Business Case: Forum 5.0 is easier to install and manage than Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange, or Novell Groupwise, and it boasts an impressive set of collaboration features.
Technology Case: Forum runs with just about any Unix or Windows NT Web server.
Users and administrators need only a Web browser to exploit all of Forum's features.
+ Rich set of collaboration features
+ Easy installation and administration
+ Cross-platform compatibility
- Lackluster performance in Windows
- Costly for small groups
Cost: $6,995 per CPU; $9,995 includes Workflow add-onPlatform(s): Solaris 2.5 or later; Windows NT 4 or later; Compaq Tru64 Unix 4.0B or later; Red Hat Linux 5.2 or laterSiteScape Inc., Alexandria, Va.; (703) 837-9570; www.sitescape.com.