IBM's collaboration tools evolve

Introduced in 1989, IBM Lotus Notes 7 stays true to the original's ideals of efficient collaboration. In this release, Notes email and calendar entries are even easier to manage, and the Domino 7 server embraces more standards, including Web services, so developers can expose Notes databases to external systems. The already outstanding platform support is broadened with desktop Linux for email and calendaring -- as well as systems management.

Although there are many changes within Domino 7, the improvements to Lotus Notes 7 are far from cosmetic. For example, a Mail Thread view let me look through a long message trail to see who already responded, which saved me time. Icon indicators mark the importance of messages; you can, say, set a half-solid circle (marking it as semi-critical) if there are more than three names in the To: field, as this is likely a common broadcast distribution. I also liked new right-click options for common tasks such as flagging a message for follow-up, as well as the amount of customization possible.

The general user experience is better in Notes 7, compared to version 6.5. Asynchronous data transfer updates database views in the background, so you can continue to work in another window. AutoSave protects documents in the case of a system problem.

Notes 7 continues to blend presence awareness and instant messaging, but updates in these areas helped me work more efficiently. For instance, chat transcripts are saved in a separate view, so I could go back and find information discussed in a previous IM session.

Calendar and scheduling are also smoother and more integrated. When selecting a meeting time, the same form is used to reserve a room; previously this was a separate function that could result in double-booking resources. Moreover, after configuring Lotus Sametime Web conferencing, I could set up online meetings without leaving Lotus Notes.

Lotus Notes Web Access, a browser client for accessing Domino-based mail files, was fast and provided a very good experience on Internet Explorer and Firefox. I had no problems creating rich text messages, scheduling meetings, and collaborating with colleagues. Like the Notes client, Web Access also provides icons indicating the online status of co-workers, and mail threads are available along with one-click flagging of messages for follow-up.

Domino Web Access 7 works with Firefox on both Windows and Linux -- including drag-and-drop functions and offline mode. Although not quite as functional as Scalix or Zimbra AJAX browser clients (http://www.infoworld.com/article/06/03/23/76503_13TCmessage_3.html), IBM's Web solution does a good job of mirroring the Notes client and will be a valuable alternative for many office and mobile workers.

In addition to the aforementioned Linux alternatives, IBM offers Lotus Domino Access for Microsoft Outlook -- a plug-in that allows Outlook users to view their Domino mail file. This solution replicates Domino data to an Outlook personal folder (.pst) file, but does not provide live communication to an Exchange server.

For developers, Domino Designer 7 has several usability and programmability enhancements. The UI has been rearranged so developers don't have to scroll or change windows. Further, I used the new Profiler to measure the time that Java code required to open databases and perform other tasks, helping me identify bottlenecks.

On the data-management front, Domino 7 can now use an IBM DB2 repository to store individual Notes databases. It's a promising addition, because developers can use SQL commands to access and display data, but this feature is currently being tested by customers who participate in IBM's Limited Availability program. (General availability and support is planned for the next Notes release.) What is ready for production includes built-in elements for Web services and portal integration, which work nicely. Using the WSDL design element, I soon had a .Net app interacting with a Notes database after only minor changes to both applications.

Domino Server 7 has improved scalability and performance, too. Although I didn't formally benchmark a large installation, IBM representatives said their tests show Domino 7 uses as much as 25 per cent fewer CPU resources than version 6.5 and can support 80 percent more mail users on the same hardware than in previous versions. In my unofficial tests, Domino 7 felt snappier delivering Web apps and also responded faster when retrieving mail with multiple Notes clients connected. Therefore, I feel IBM's results are in line with what enterprises will experience in a large live setting.

I fully tested server administration, monitoring, and troubleshooting. Using a Linux workstation, I monitored the status of servers in multiple Domino domains. I particularly liked the activity trends feature, which charted statistics for server groups and put them into meaningful views. Domino uses this data to make recommendations for balancing workload across servers.

Next, I specified Probes that automatically checked a variety of heath categories, such as replication, database access, and mail delivery. Based on Probe data, visual indicators in the Domino console alerted me to problems before they affected users -- and cut troubleshooting time. Support staff will likely find client upgrades and general user administration easier and less time consuming in this version of Domino. For example, the new client policy lock-down feature let me specify which settings (including mail, calendar, security, and IM) a user could alter.

Notes and Domino 7 continue to improve TCO with features that can boost end-user, administrator, and developer productivity, along with better scalability. I believe it's also notable how IBM continues to evolve this platform beyond e-mail and calendaring. The company has a solid road map for the next release, code-named Hannover (Notes 8). When available in late 2006 or early 2007, Hannover should further support composite applications, such as bringing together e-mail, documents, and meetings into a single interface -- a key part of an SOA.

IBM prices this solution competitively with Exchange and GroupWise. Notes and Domino 7, however, can have a better TCO, the result of supporting more users per CPU, easier administration, and integration with other IBM Lotus products, such as Sametime for online meetings. This makes a convincing upgrade argument for existing customers -- and a sound reason for considering a switch from other solutions.

Criteria Score Weight
Features 8.0 20.0
Management 9.0 20.0
Performance 9.0 20.0
Ease-of-use 8.0 15.0
Integration 9.0 15.0
Value 9.0 10.0

Cost: Domino Server starts at $1145 per CPU; Notes starts at $101 per client; Domino Web Access 7 starts at $70 per client

Platforms: Windows 2000 and 2003 Server; iSeries and zSeries (z/OS and Linux); AIX 5.2 and 5.3; Solaris 9 and 10; Suse Linux Enterprise Server 8 and 9; Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 (Intel x86 and zSeries)

Bottom Line: Lotus Notes 7 and Domino 7 include improvements for end-users, developers, and administrators. E-mail and calendaring remove clutter and expand presence awareness. The Domino Web Access browser client has broader platform support for desktop Linux, and Domino Designer 7 lets coders utilize Web services. Administrators can manage entire Domino 7 domains from one interface.

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