Product review: Domino R5 is easier to use

When any product upgrade is announced, we all want to know: what's in it for me? In the case of Lotus Development's forthcoming Domino R5, it appears the answer will come in the form of a dump truck full of new features and functions. Computerworld and Client/Server Labs looked at a copy of the Beta 2 release. Lotus is preparing a host of significant additions that will combine to make the server more resilient and the client software easier to use.

From an entirely new internal database through new administrative and development tools to a radically redesigned Notes client interface, Domino R5 may appear to some as an almost new product. In fact, the sheer number of promised additions and changes approaches the level at which administrators may become concerned about how well it all hangs together.

What we saw, though, looked stable, especially for a second-round beta release. However, some of that improvement may come at the cost of leaving behind a small sector of its client-side user base, such as people running older versions of the Windows and Macintosh operating systems.

The most important, although least visible, changes are in the internal database structures and a shift to Internet standards for much of the internal message processing.

Domino in the past has been subject to criticism (somewhat justifiably) for inefficiencies in the way it handles data internally.

However, IBM's acquisition of Lotus enabled Lotus developers to draw on IBM's database expertise and create an entirely new internal database structure as an included option with Domino R5. This enhanced database structure, which may be applied to new databases or used to upgrade existing ones, adds features such as transaction logging. The database size also increased from a maximum of 4Gbytes to a certified size of 64Gbytes. Lotus says the database will scale even more, though the company hasn't yet certified it.

Another key benefit of the new structure is that it can perform tasks such as backups and recoveries without needing to take the Domino server off-line.

If there's anything missing from this new database structure, it's the lack of an easy way to tell which version of the database structure is in use.

Lotus has also made some big changes in the messaging infrastructure for those who may use Domino as a mail server: Message content now is handled directly in Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension (MIME) format, eliminating both the time and consistency problems of the older product's conversion process.

For the administrator -- Domino R5 offers a restructured administration utility that helps control high-level functions. For example, a graphical representation shows the status of multiple Domino servers in a cluster. There also are new tools for numerous lower-level but still important functions such as checking on the quality of user passwords.

For the end user -- Lotus has almost completely redesigned the user interface in the Notes client. The new version uses the Internet programming language HTML as the primary presentation method, making integration with Web-style information essentially seamless. However, this new presentation means that Lotus has limited its client-supported platforms list to Windows 95/98, NT 4.0 or the Macintosh PowerPC 7.6 or 8.1 and later versions.

Users now can use a framework similar to the traditional browsers with which they are already familiar. This may be either a benefit or a problem: The new client may function as the user's primary Web browser or may be configured to summon an external Web browser such as Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. However, although Internet Explorer may be made to look as if it's just part of the Notes product, the integration of Navigator isn't quite as seamless. Lotus says that's because of limitations in the Netscape product. As a result, the user may have to deal with using a not-quite-identical interface.

Our only notable gripe about the new interface was a fairly picky one: We found the placement of some of the user controls (forward, back, and so on) inconvenient. Lotus says it's considering moving them to a more customary spot.

The older interface with its database-oriented view of the Notes world is no longer imposed on the user, although you have the option to use it. The centrepiece of the new presentation is something called a "Headlines" page. Here, users can bring together key pieces of information they find interesting. Filters may be set on any database in which the user has an interest to bring out important information.

For the developer -- Tied in closely with the new client is a new design tool, Notes Designer, which allows the developer (or a savvy end user) to create both Notes presentation pages and standard Web content with the same tool set.

Because the new Notes client presents information in HTML, the developer is free to use many, if not most, of the familiar Web design concepts such as frame sets in laying out pages. Notes forms may simply be imbedded in a frame set for a consistent presentation to end users. The tool also allows the developer to interactively design both the form and the underlying database in a single, iterative _procedure.

Hayes is a systems controls manager at Client/Server Labs (http://www.cslinc.com) in Atlanta, a primary test lab partner for Computerworld US.

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