Messaging looks to the long term

Long deemed essential to the enterprise, messaging platforms are poised for a significant makeover as evidenced by the maturation and confluence of technologies in today’s enterprise messaging space.

No longer confined to the e-mail inbox alone, companies are looking for messaging platforms that offer connections to more data sources because previous methods of connectivity -- oftentimes a rudimentary cut and paste -- are no longer good enough.

"E-mail is truly mission critical now. It has become the defacto glue that holds a lot of business process together," according to Dana Gardner, research director at Aberdeen Group Inc., in Boston .

To meet those needs, vendors are injecting collaboration technologies into business applications and processes and are delivering them through Web services and other open standards. This next generation of contextual collaboration is developing into a battleground on which vendors are already plotting major platform shifts for the years ahead.

"The biggest benefit (of contextual collaboration) is that your main mode of data messaging, which is e-mail, is no longer off on an island, and you can integrate content and data from e-mail activities with your business processes, your applications, and increasingly Web services," explains Gardner.

On the road to a database foundation

Vendors are already putting together the pieces of their vision for the future of messaging: IBM Corp.’s Lotus Software has already taken steps to bring the Domino platform in line with the IBM WebSphere application server and DB2 database; Microsoft Corp. is planning a unified data store for Exchange and tighter links to its .Net Web services platform; Novell intends to put Web services to work in its GroupWise collaboration platform; and Oracle stepped into the fray last year with a platform built on its Oracle9i database.

According to Matt Cain, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group, using a relational database store for messaging will yield many benefits for the enterprise, including higher transaction support, greater flexibility and scalability, and the ability to unite data from disparate sources.

"Longer term, companies will be able to get some efficiency by being able to apply common management infrastructure across multiple relational databases, and you'll have some management economies of scale," Cain says.

IBM recently showed proof points for its vision: a low-cost e-mail offering and an e-learning management system that run on WebSphere and DB2, as well as a developer toolkit designed to port Domino development capabilities to J2EE environments.

Big Blue has also revealed plans for its forthcoming Version 7.0 of Notes/Domino, which will offer DB2 as an optional back-end data store and is slated to be available some time next year.

In the interim, both Microsoft and IBM are emphasizing their commitment to existing platforms and are focusing on improving total cost of ownership, server consolidation, spam prevention, access methods, and administrative ease.

Microsoft’s rough outline of a future version of Exchange, code-named Kodiak, shows that it will include a database foundation based on the forthcoming Yukon data-storage architecture. Kodiak, due in 2005, will delve deeper into Web services, according to Jim Bernardo, Exchange product manager at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash.

The goal, Bernardo explains, is to rationalize key technologies across a suite of products. "The industry is moving in that direction," he adds, noting that a big piece of the strategy is to prepare a cohesive foundation for Web services.

The products "need to build solid foundation architecture so customers can do the business stuff that Web services promises," Bernardo explains.

Microsoft's vision for the future of enterprise messaging also includes tighter links among its core messaging platform, Office suite, and SharePoint Portal and Team Services via XML and Web services APIs. This cross-collaboration capability will help dissolve boundaries between tools and applications, according to Microsoft officials.

Indeed, these movements away from highly specialized messaging storage formats to a relational database back end will provide access to more powerful query, reporting, and data-mining tools, according to David Ferris, president of Ferris Research in San Francisco .

"Relational databases are used so widely, there are millions of programmers," Ferris says. "Also, there is great potential for backup and recovery improvement. Today that is somewhat poor in a messaging store."

A collaboration framework based on Web services also will yield significant flexibility, according to Meta’s Cain. "As both Microsoft and IBM begin to expose mail services and calendar services in a more granular fashion, you could use SOAP to invoke mail services within the context of a CRM application," he explains.

Short-term reality vs. long-term goals

Meanwhile, customers are balancing short-term messaging needs with the potential long-term gains that could come from advanced Web services collaboration.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an IBM customer, is developing long-term goals but is currently strapped by state budget constraints that are forcing educational institutions to do more with less, says Clark Wise, director of technical services at the University Office for Capital Programs. The office oversees a Domino-based project management application designed to coordinate university construction projects.

Wise says he is excited about IBM's J2EE collaboration vision because it offers opportunities to leveraging existing systems and to bridge disparate applications.

"IBM has hit the target very well by giving us the opportunity to look at blending some of our best-of-breed software together by using the J2EE interface and allowing it to happen through the portal process," Wise explains. "We hope to tie some of those things together so we can begin to look at a much larger picture of capital asset management than we've ever been able to previously."

According to Meta’s Cain, enterprises currently drawing up plans for messaging should try to eliminate redundant elements and plan for a cohesive infrastructure strategy.

"For all of your collaboration strategy -- e-mail being part of that -- you want to have common infrastructure: common databases, common management tools, security infrastructure, and common application development techniques," Cain says. "Look at who will supply your Web application server, databases, portal, security framework, and your directory. You want to select a collaboration vendor that is very much in line with longer-term infrastructure direction."

The options are multiplying. While larger infrastructure vendors vie for Web services dominance and attempt to draw their customer base along for the ride, smaller messaging vendors are eyeing opportunities to win business with low-cost, reliable platforms.

Sendmail, Stalker Software, Critical Path, Mirapoint, IpSwitch, Gordeno, and others extol the value of interoperating with a variety of platforms, high scalability at a low cost, and maintaining a focusing on core messaging needs.

Marin County selected Mill Valley, Calif.-based Stalker Software's messaging platform for its superior spam blocking and its platform independence. E-mail has emerged as a critical tool for notifications and other time-sensitive communications, according to Scott McKown, an administrator at Marin County’s IS office in Marin, Calif. Platform independence is a major consideration in the county's efforts to coordinate messaging for various government agencies and police departments.

"We don't want to be platform-bound. We are on Windows 2000 right now, but if we want to go to Linux, we won't have to mess around (with our messaging platform)," McKown explains.

The degree to which related collaboration and messaging tools such as IM and shared spaces will intersect with traditional messaging remains to be seen. Microsoft has revealed plans to shed IM and conferencing functions from Exchange into a forthcoming collaboration offering dubbed Greenwich , which will plug in to the operating system. IBM is committed to tightening integration between its Sametime IM and QuickPlace conferencing technologies and to building presence and related functions into other applications.

"These platform and integration (shifts) bring together the best of communication and the human form factor of trust with what computers do well, which is speeds and feeds, storage and retrieval of data, and analytics," says Aberdeen’s Gardner. "We've been building to this for 40 years in computing. It is astounding that is has taken this long for communications to meet up with application activities."

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