Lotus, Microsoft, AOL prepare IM for enterprise

Typically regarded as a consumer-oriented text chat tool, instant messaging, as well as presence-awareness technology, are making strong inroads into enterprises, emerging as critical collaboration and productivity tools.

Heavyweight infrastructure vendors, including IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp., are accelerating expansive strategies to leverage real-time communications throughout the infrastructure stack, while a crop of smaller players have emerged in recent years to address corporate IM concerns.

The activity comes at a time when around 42 percent of enterprises are using IM for true business applications, and that percentage is expected to rise, according to Osterman Research.

"By this time next year, you'll see 65 [percent] to 70 percent of companies using IM for a variety of business applications," said Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research Inc. in Black Diamond, Wash.

Enterprise IM is poised to germinate at both the application and platform levels, operating as a stand-alone application and as a set of technologies embedded in operating systems, software, and devices, according to analysts.

To that end, IBM Lotus Software is aligning its Sametime and QuickPlace collaboration tools with IBM's WebSphere architecture.

Microsoft's plans include the forthcoming Greenwich initiative designed to embed presence awareness and IM at the operating system level.

In addition, both vendors are planning to leverage emerging Web services standards in their toolsets to help developers exploit real-time communications and presence-awareness technology in enterprise applications.

"What started out as a tactical application is being developed and nurtured by companies like IBM and Microsoft to have both a collaborative and productive benefit as an application, but further being baked into applications through the platform and standards," said Dana Gardner, research director at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston.

The strategic goal is to make real-time collaborative activities seamless to business processes, application activities, and consumers and partners on the supply chain, Gardner said.

This week, IBM Lotus Software will roll out new versions of its Sametime IM software, alongside updates to its QuickPlace team collaboration software and its Notes/Domino messaging and calendaring platform.

Following its vision to bring Lotus collaboration offerings closer to the IBM WebSphere platform and under the J2EE wing, the new versions of Sametime and QuickPlace are tied closer together, with Sametime presence-awareness capabilities surfaced throughout QuickPlace.

Sametime 3.0 will also include new management and monitoring features, improved buddy list administration and improved file sharing capabilities, according to Lotus officials.

Cambridge, Mass.-based IBM Lotus General Manager Al Zollar said the company's vision for Sametime is to break down the concept of a stand-alone IM client to allow collaboration within any application.

"The next step is going to make sure that we have more consistent, Java-oriented APIs that allow these things to be built into applications," Zollar said.

"Sametime is a great example here, where you can look at any Web-based application, and as long as you have a name and you have a directory, you can Sametime-enable that application to tell the user of that application whether someone is online at that moment or not," he added.

Microsoft plans to move away from its Exchange-based IM offering to embed IM and presence-awareness technology in Windows .Net Server next year.

Code-named Greenwich, the initiative is designed to build on core presence capabilities to deliver IM, voice, video, and data collaboration throughout the enterprise, according to Microsoft.

Not to be counted out, AOL's popular Instant Messenger service is planning to launch into the corporate space by the end of the year.

An AOL representative said the company is extending its consumer-oriented AIM platform to develop IM services that meet the needs of business users.

Sources close to the company said AOL is planning to add encryption and bolstered IT administration tools to its service.

But as these long-term visions take shape in the infrastructure, corporate users are latching on to a variety of already available IM tools that run across corporate networks largely unmanaged.

Network sniffing tools from companies such as IM-Age Software Inc. and IMlogic Inc. can help address this problem by giving network administrators the ability to sniff out which services are in use and how much network traffic they generate, analysts observed.

Companies surprised by the widespread adoption of consumer systems can choose from a bevy of tools designed to add security and auditing controls to consumer IM offerings. Companies in this space include IM-Age, IMlogic, and Endeavors Technology Inc.

But depending on a company's security requirements, analysts caution that securing public services may be only a stopgap measure.

"It is a stepping stone and a cost-effective way of getting some authentication involved. Then a company can make a decision whether or not they want a full system," Aberdeen's Gardner said.

Stand-alone offerings from Lotus, FaceTime Communications Inc., Jabber Inc., WiredRed Software Corp., and Communicator Inc. can ease security concerns, but often prevent users from messaging with users outside the firewall.

Industry support is gathering behind standards such as SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and the related protocol SIMPLE (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions).

IBM leverages SIP in Sametime, while Microsoft has pledged future support for SIMPLE as it matures through the standards process.

As the standards process proceeds, one of the remaining roadblocks with IM is the lack of interoperability among competing offerings.

An accepted standard will make it easier for developers to invoke presence and real-time sessions in association with applications and business processes, but it does not solve the interoperability problem, Gardner said.

IM HEADS FOR ENTERPRISE

Vendors are rushing in with integrated IM tools.

* divine Inc. will release MindAlign 2002 IM system this week.

* Asynchrony Solutions Inc. is developing Envoke IM.

* Communicator is working on Hub IM Version 3.5VENDORSWeb services, Jabber-styleFrom the moment Jabber burst on the scene in January 1999, it was clearly more than just another IM system. It's true that Jeremie Miller founded the project in order to lash together IM conversations among friends using ICQ, AIM, Yahoo, and MSN Messenger. But Jabber's technology is far more agile than that used by the monolithic and proprietary systems. DJ Adams, a member of the Jabber Council and author of O'Reilly and Associates' Programming Jabber, calls it "a language-and platform-agnostic XML routing framework."

A Jabber conversation is literally an XML document that is formed a piece at a time by the exchange of XML fragments. Jabber's protocol, XMPP, defines three standard elements called message, presence, and IQ (info/query). Any of these message types can be augmented with additional XML data.

Early on, Jabber developers began experimenting with Jabber as a transport for XML-RPC (SOAP's progenitor). Jabber's asynchronous and event-oriented nature makes it a potentially useful SOAP transport. And its document-exchange model maps nicely to the emerging style of Web services. But Jabber's notion of presence is the real wild card.

Presence is the business driver for IM. Everyone who's tried to round up a team of co-workers using a combination of voice mail and e-mail understands the value of IM's real-time presence indicators. That's why Jabber, the company that's commercializing the open-source Jabber technology, is scoring wins with the likes of BellSouth Corp. and France Telecom SA.

So far, these efforts shore up the open-source offering with the features that businesses demands: reliability, security, and auditing. But as Web services begin delivering business process integration, the ability to sense and react to presence will become strategic.

The Web services model is moving toward emulating real-world document flow. The reason enterprise users need support for long-running transactions, after all, is that the people who approve and route documents are often hard to reach. IM-style presence will help grease the wheels of the business Web.

Although presence applies mainly to people, it also can be relevant to devices and services. In Groove, for example, you are not merely present in a shared space, you are present at your desktop PC or on your laptop, and services may adjust what they deliver to you accordingly.

Even services can become transient. Rich Kilmer, a consultant to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), uses Jabber to control a distributed peer-to-peer agent system. "If I'm at Starbucks on 802.11b," he says, "I'd like others to be able to use the personal Web services on my laptop."

With Jabber, such services can be made available in a location-transparent way.

Jabber also anticipates the XML routing features (for example, WS-Routing and WS-Referral), which are now on the Web services drawing board. "The presence-related aspects of Jabber can make routing and rerouting intelligent," says Jabber Council's Adams.

This summer, AOL backed away from SIMPLE, which stands for SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions. SIMPLE is an IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) working group focused on IM and presence. The Jabber forces leaped into the vacuum created by AOL's departure, and it now seems likely that XMPP will find a home in the IETF. If that happens, there are plenty of good things Jabber could bring to the Web services table.

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