Verizon Business offers hosted IM for business users

Verizon Business announced a hosted instant messaging service Wednesday focused on the needs of business users that includes network security and reliability.

Verizon Business, a unit of Verizon Communications, was created in January out of Verizon's merger with MCI. The new Hosted Secure Instant Messaging Service builds on an e-mail service launched by MCI in April 2005, according to Rick Dyer, director of IT solutions product management at Verizon.

Dyer said IT managers need such a service to add security to instant messaging applications that users are increasingly demanding. Plus, a hosted service will reduce the headaches of administering IM, he said.

"IM is already in the enterprise, and IT managers know that if you shut off public IM, it will bring an outcry for those who have gotten used to it," Dyer said. "So we're trying to provide a service so that IM meets their corporate guidelines and prevents backdoor security holes."

The service has two options, and customers can have either or both. The services are available now in North America.

One option, Enterprise Instant Messaging, uses Microsoft Office Communicator 2005 software and encrypts IM chats between users. It also integrates with Microsoft Outlook to improve efficiency for users. Enterprise IM starts at US$5.95 per user per month, with a 25-user minimum, Dyer said.

The other option, Managed Public Instant Messaging, helps companies managed public IM systems such as MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger. Administrators can determine which workers access specific IM networks, and security is enhanced with predictive threat-protection systems that include the blocking of "spim," or unsolicited chat messages from unknown users, Dyer said. Managed Public IM starts at US$3.50 per user per month, with a 25-user minimum.

Both options provide antivirus software, content filtering and session logging, giving users and administrators the ability to monitor chat streams or to access stored sessions, Dyer said.

Verizon said two large business customers have been successfully using the beta version of the service for nearly a year, but both declined to be interviewed.

John Wade, CIO at Saint Luke's Health System in Kansas City, Mo., said the Verizon service sounds "positive," depending on the actual costs and whether it could be maintained securely. "I'd give it a try," he said. "Whether it remained in place long term ... would depend on the business metrics."

Wade said Saint Luke's "is still struggling with the IM issue. We have a corporate philosophy that IM really isn't needed, but I'm trying to balance this with some individuals' needs for IM."

Dyer said he knows of no other carriers that offer a similarly integrated IM and e-mail service that provides security for public and internal IM. However, John O'Keefe, an analyst at Current Analysis in Sterling, Va., said AT&T Inc. has taken the lead with its Managed Instant Messaging. "Verizon is a bit late to the game with this IM service," O'Keefe said.

Still, demand for the two services will "really resonate amongst Verizon Business target markets," O'Keefe said. Greater need for security with IM and for less complexity with a hosted technology will drive customers to such services in greater numbers, he said.

"Instant messaging has been around among enterprises for a couple of years, and the proliferation of attacks coming from this communication is growing," O'Keefe said. "Clients are demanding greater internal control of [IM], and many need to outsource to provide the controls associated with a hosted IM solution." The Verizon services have several user-friendly features, including integrated security, he added.

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