Enterprise Messaging Goes to the Next Level

Enterprise Messaging Goes to the Next Level<@VM>Lotus<@VM>Microsoft<@VM>Other Views<@VM>NOAA

By John Makulowich

Like most systems, services and processes touched by the popular protocol named IP (Internet Protocol), enterprise messaging continues to morph in new and surprising ways. With innovations like Internet facsimile now passing through the standards review and improvements in equipment for voice-over-IP gaining ground, enterprise messaging will take on an increasingly critical role in the organization.

And it likely will create new and different nightmares for policy-makers as well as network administrators in the federal government trying to get their arms around the management of system resources in the never-ending quest to deliver information on demand to users any way, any time, anywhere.

The leader in the space, IBM Corp.'s Lotus Development Corp., Cambridge Mass., still is making headway in helping federal agencies streamline processes and improve access to information.

Just last March, the company released Notes R5, an integrated Weblike messaging and collaboration environment that provides users with access to and management of different types of information, including Domino and Internet-based e-mail, appointments, contacts, to-dos as well as Web pages, newsgroups and intranet applications.

Notes brings this information together in a customizable and secure environment for messaging, collaboration and information management. Its most recent contract was signed in June with the Agriculture Department's Forest Service to connect 32,000 users in nine regions across the United States. The procurement represents an organizationwide purchase that amounts to standardizing on Lotus Notes and Domino for the messaging infrastructure and development of enterprise applications.

The Forest Service oversees management of more than 190 million acres of public lands comprising 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands in 44 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. For this dispersed array, Domino offers knowledge management, Web publishing and application development features that will allow secure, Internet-based access to Forest Service data, analysis and models.

To Michael Harer, product manager for Lotus Notes and Domino Messaging, there is no question that messaging is undergoing a redefinition, one which has been evolving over the last couple of years.

The new buzzword is unified messaging, a concept about which Lotus is likely to become much more vocal in the coming months.

"Unified messaging is not a new type of messaging, but an extension of what we do today," Harer said. "It means supporting and providing accessibility and manageability to all media types in a single place. It combines voice, facsimile and e-mail and simply reflects the fact that the telecommunications and IT worlds are converging."

While the adoption of unified messaging may be slowly making its way through the corporate landscape, it is really the evolution of messaging technologies that is setting the pace in areas such as voice-over-IP and interoperability.

Regardless, Harer feels that analysts are consistent in seeing the time frame for complete convergence in three to six years, a movement that seems well on its way.

When asked about the competition in the enterprise messaging as well as the knowledge management space, Harer quickly offered a distinction between unified and integrated messaging.

"While the result may appear the same to the end user, we see unified messaging as a single-server solution, while integrated messaging relies on a dual server, a voice message store and e-mail store: an imperfect solution," said Harer.

Convinced about the momentum for unified messaging, he understands the need to offer a range of solutions. From his vantage point, voice messaging systems are dominant in North America. However, Lotus wants the capability of offering total solutions in places like Asia as well as to extend expand the level of administrative controls. That means offering more useful and easy-to-use features for network administrators, such as flexible controls for archiving and purging files.
That level of control is a major selling point in Microsoft's newest entry and fourth release of Exchange Server, named Platinum. Targeted to directly compete with Domino and Lotus Notes R5, Platinum is positioned as a messaging and collaboration product with a highly reliable and scalable platform for e-mail, group scheduling, collaboration and work-flow and routing applications.

More importantly for Microsoft customers, the product offers tighter integration with Microsoft Windows 2000, Microsoft Office 2000 and the World Wide Web.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant set three goals for Platinum:

  • To refine messaging and collaboration infrastructure;

  • To create a single World Wide Web store for documents and applications;

  • To remove barriers to communication, enabling access to information any time, anywhere.

According to Jeff Tozzi, technology specialist with Microsoft Federal, Platinum will offer true enterprise messaging through integration with Windows 2000 Active Directory and be scalable to millions of objects in an enterprise.

"While the end user will not notice much difference, the common directory across the network [Active Directory] will allow the administrator granular control of the operating system as well as of messaging and collaboration. It will also allow support for a large organization over multiple sites," said Tozzi.

Beyond the new responsibilities that network administrators are likely to inherit, a key facet of Platinum is the range of devices it will support, from traditional desktop clients to new form factors, such as Web TV, Windows CE-based telephones and audio, voice and video. It is all part of unified messaging, of voice and e-mail integration, of one single information source of all data.

In the midst of all this jockeying for position in the software mind space of messaging and collaboration customers, advances proceed apace on the hardware side of the equation.

Cisco Systems Inc., the networking routing and switching market leader, just announced its so-called AVVID, the Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data for the corporate enterprise.

Made up of four building blocks, AVVID consists of IP infrastructure systems, call processing platforms and solutions, applications like unified messaging, collaborative features and IP contact centers and intelligent IP-enabled clients. These include IP telephones and software-based phones and video clients.

For Theta Bowen, associate director of technology in administrative information systems at Virginia Tech, all these advances in hardware and offerings in messaging and collaboration software provide more evidence that the definition of messaging continues to evolve.

One clear trend is the move toward unified messaging, the effort to pull together voice mail and e-mail into one location that can be accessed by the client of your choice.

"Unified messaging seems like a goal that resonates. Yet it is too early to see what is happening. Windows 2000 remains elusive. It really is too soon to see how it will play out," said Bowen.

Key for Bowen in all this activity is the significant movement away from proprietary transport protocols and toward an open system, where you could use Novell's GroupWise with Exchange Server or Microsoft Outlook with GroupWise. The convergence is clearly at the server level with the critical element being the directory, which is the underpinning of the infrastructure. Here, at least for the moment, most observers feel Novell has the upper hand.

Asked how he deals with the continuing change in enterprise messaging caused by the widespread adoption of Internet protocols, Bowen said the approach is to overengineer everything to the extent possible and "to a point that would have seemed ridiculous just a few years ago."

"However, hardware is getting so cheap, you start off at a very high level of service," Bowen said. "You can cover the initial load, begin to notice the evolutionary trends and upgrade quickly. The important issue is the ability to quickly upgrade. And to avoid moving to a platform that has inherent limits; scalability is important."

Three other trends he highlights include outsourcing, where an Internet service provider will bundle a host of options in offering e-mail to small to medium-size firms, the move from the POP3 protocol to IMAP, which represents a shift from the client to the server side and the importance of security, especially in light of recent computer viruses sent in e-mail attachments.

The short-term lack of clarity in the direction of enterprise messaging and the need for open systems solutions left one federal agency taking a completely different course of action.

The case in point is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Department of Commerce. Created in 1970, NOAA, an environmental scientific agency, is made up of the National Ocean Service, National Weather Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service and Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research.

The agency sought a cost-effective, integrated e-mail management system to connect to one location all its disparate e-mail systems scattered across the United States. And with more than a dozen independent e-mail systems, the organization had no single e-mail address directory.

Connectivity between the large Banyan network and the large cc:Mail networks was maintained through several ad hoc and independently-managed gateways that allowed limited manual directory exchange. In fact, the directories maintained on NOAA's different e-mail systems were incomplete or incompatible. As a result, mailing lists were useless across different systems, and sending attachments was difficult, at best.

According to Rob Swisher, chief of NOAA's Computer Division, the solution involved the realization that the business environment of NOAA consisted of a 14,000-plus person organization of fairly autonomous units dispersed in hundreds of locations and buildings across the country with a mix of technologies. Further, as a science organization, most of the staff were Unix-based.

"When looking at the business process to search for a messaging and collaboration solution, you must ask who you are and what you do," said Swisher. "It was clear to us that we needed a system that could handle a large, complex organization that was based on open standards and was nonproprietary."

Swisher said identifying an open architecture is more difficult than it sounds. Not only must you analyze what a vendor means by "open," but in cases where it is less than 100 percent, you have to determine how much of the standard is met by the vendor.

"The details are important. You need to know whether the system meets the international standards. The experience of NOAA has been that the greatest return on investment is going with open systems," said Swisher.

The bottom line at the time the decision needed to be made was that the X.500 offering from Lotus and other vendors did not adequately meet the standards.

The solution for NOAA was to team with Control Data Systems Inc., Arden Hills, Minn., to install and integrate that company's Mail*Hub product. CDC installed two Hewlett-Packard servers that provided a standards-based, integrated Mail*Hub backbone to interconnect NOAA's existing e-mail systems.

Through the product, NOAA got a unified e-mail directory that refreshes every evening. The unified NOAA X.500 directory contains nearly 30,000 entries and is accessed through an Internet Web browser or Query By Mail.

When talking about the pace of change in the industry and the need to keep on top of developments and technology, Swisher's solution is to rely on vendors that value the benefits of adhering to standards and that are committed to open standards.

"You have to hold the vendor to its commitment and recognize that their commitment provides more options to you in the future and offers less risk," Swisher said.

For the future, he sees an unlimited number of applications based on the TCP/IP protocol. But from his perspective, what will drive messaging and collaboration will be directory services.

"The development of the directory and the upkeep and maintenance of the directory is important. And security is critical," said Swisher.

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