Test Center Rx: Exchange or Notes?

SAN MATEO (01/24/2000) - Brooks: Last week I was sad as Mark Pace rode off into the sunset, but this week I'm happy to introduce my new partner, senior analyst Lori Mitchell. Lori may appear new to this column, but she's been in the Test Center for four years. She's the lead analyst on the lab's Intranets & I-Commerce team, and her current areas of expertise include electronic-commerce products and groupware tools, which run from Internet-based collaboration to online training and project management. I've always enjoyed working with Lori, and I trust you'll also benefit from our partnership.

My company is looking for a new messaging solution. We're running Microsoft Mail, and we're not sure whether to upgrade to Microsoft Exchange or go in a different direction with something like Lotus Notes. To top it off, our NetWare administrator is pushing GroupWise, which seems to me nearly the same as Exchange. Most of our end-user desktops are Windows 95, and we have some remote offices that are connected by slow (56Kb) leased lines. Just as everyone else, we'd prefer to buy something that will keep up with new technology. I'm concerned about Exchange because it's so Windows-centric, but I've heard that Notes is very slow on Pentium-class desktops. What is the best solution for us?

Brooks: Well, this is one of those "it really depends on ... " questions. But I hope we can point you toward the right questions to ask. As in most IT endeavors, the first step is figuring out what exactly you want. Are you simply looking for a more modern e-mail system, or do you really plan to use so-called groupware functionality?

In my experience, most places don't use the advanced features in any of these products. If you are truly going to build sophisticated applications, Notes is by far the most flexible. E-mail is just the tip of the iceberg in Notes. The downside -- as you've apparently heard -- is that the Notes client is something of a hog. I find Notes 5 to be less bloated than Notes 4, but Release 5 is by no means svelte.

GroupWise and Exchange are similar; they offer some of the groupware features of Notes, but they are mainly aimed at scheduling, workflow, and contact management.

GroupWise is a fine solution, but my opinion is that it's not a real focus for Novell, so I'd be wary of picking it. Now, before I get deluged with mail from GroupWise fans, let me emphasize that I've used it and liked it, and I'm sure it serves its installed base well. But at this juncture, I can't see recommending it.

From the Microsoft camp, you've got Exchange, which means the Outlook client.

Outlook isn't exactly trim, either, though I find it more responsive than Notes. The Exchange-plus-Outlook combination is Windows-centric, as you mentioned, but it does have a solid Web interface that's good for many of Exchange's basic features. If you want group scheduling or workflow, you're out of luck, but for basic e-mail, contacts, and personal calendars, it works perfectly well.

I recommend you go with Notes if you are going to use its capabilities beyond basic e-mail. You should probably go with Exchange if you don't. Neither is perfect, but they both work well, and either one will be a great improvement over Microsoft Mail.

Lori: It is definitely time for you to upgrade your Microsoft Mail system, but choosing the alternative is always tough.

I can see why your NetWare administrator is pushing GroupWise. That move would simplify his or her job, as the two are integrated nicely together in their administration. GroupWise offers many good groupware features; these include document collaboration with a library for checking documents in and out, as well as e-mail and workflow. If document management is key and if your organization is a big-time NetWare shop, then this may be a good choice.

If you can wait, Exchange 2000 is due to ship the first half of this year. It should offer improved document sharing, instant messaging, and conferencing options; stronger tools for developing applications, such as workflow; and tight integration with Windows 2000. Of course, before you can upgrade to Exchange 2000 you will have to "embrace" Windows 2000 as well (for more, see my beta review, "Exchange serves Windows 2000," at www.infoworld.com/printlinks).

To get good value from Notes, you'll want to use its development facilities to create groupware applications. It is also a very strong tool for designing applications to run on the Domino Web server. For keeping track of contacts, however, I would recommend adding Lotus Organizer, for example, as Notes doesn't have the same capability as Outlook for managing that sort of data.

Once you sort out your needs, you should have a better view of your best solution. Good luck.

Brooks Talley is senior business and technology architect for InfoWorld.com.

Lori Mitchell is a senior analyst in the Test Center. Send your questions for them to testcenter_rx@infoworld.com.

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