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Choosing an Instant Messaging System

By Drew Bird

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The majority of IM implementations in place today are of the public type -- that is they use products such as AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), MSN Messenger or Yahoo! Messenger. These public IM systems lack the level of control and management that we would normally associate with an enterprise level IT application.

For the purposes of our discussions here, we will not discuss these public IM systems any further. Instead we'll focus our attention on Enterprise Instant Messaging (EIM) systems. Don't let the name mislead you, however. Some of the products we'll be looking at in this article are suitable for use in smaller organizations, not just enterprises, and the benefits are still just as relevant.

First let's examine the criteria you should consider when specifying an IM solution for your business and also look at some of the IM offerings on the market.

What You Should Be Looking For

Before we look at what IM offerings are available, we should discuss some of the features that you should be looking for in an IM system.

  • Authentication
  • Making sure that the user logging on to your corporate IM system is who they say they are is a primary consideration for IM applications. Many mechanisms can be used to ensure a users authenticity, although many EIM systems choose to rely on an underlying authentication mechanism, such as directory services, rather than utilize their own authentication system.

    If you have such a system, for example Microsoft's Active Directory or Novell's Directory Services, make sure that the EIM system you implement can interface with them. This will negate the need for users on your IM system to use more than one user name and password to access the network and subsequently the IM application.

  • Security
  • With IM becoming such a popular communications tool, it's reasonable to assume that conversations conducted via IM will, at some point, contain information that is company confidential, even if it's just last months sales figures or the home telephone number of an executive. For this reason, you will need an IM system that provides security for messages as they are transmitted, even if all such transmissions will be within your network.

    All of the EIM systems discussed in this article provide some level of security, though some offer more features others. Commonly accommodated features include secure sign-on, digital signatures and encryption.

  • Anti-virus
  • A widely used feature of IM systems is the ability to transmit files between users. Just as with e-mail, you need to make sure that files you are receiving (or sending for that matter) are virus free.

    Because of the overhead involved with creating anti-virus systems, many EIM providers plug into third-party anti-virus products. This means that in some cases you might get anti-virus support without having to make an additional purchase.

  • Logging
  • One of the biggest concerns with IM is that it is becoming a tool abused, rather than used for business communications. Comprehensive logging is a key element to EIM systems and rightly so. In some settings the logging may even form part of regulatory requirements or adherence to a code of practice.

    If you have specific logging requirements, make sure that the EIM system you implement accommodates them. Be aware that not all logging systems are equal and some offer much more detail than others. Also consider what formats the logging information is available in. Most EIM systems support logging to a SQL database as well as a variety of other formats.

  • Special Features
  • While all of the IM systems discussed here provide the basic IM functionality, some products are more feature-rich than others. Things to look for that you may not have considered are centralized administration of user lists, the ability to send messages to entire groups of users at a time and advanced scheduling and notification capabilities.

    If you will use it, also look at the web conferencing capabilities of some of the IM products on offer. Other more subtle features like drag and drop file transfer may not seem like a big deal, but they can add considerably to the users IM experience.

  • System Requirements
  • It's easy to think of IM as a lightweight network application, and it generally is. But the more people that use it, and the more people use it, demands on the servers and underlying infrastructure will increase.

    In a small LAN with an already underutilized server, loading the new IM software on may not have any noticeable effect on system performance. In a large organization with thousands of users, you may well find it necessary to install a new server specifically to support the IM application.

    Another consideration is OS support on both the server and client side. Unless you use one of the mainstream OS's, don't assume that the EIM application you are looking at will be supported by all of your server OS's. This is even more of a consideration on the client side where the variety of OS's in use is likely to be greater.

  • Administration
  • Last, but by no means least, in our list of things to consider is the administration model. Managing any IM system will add to your administrative workload, but the more flexible, centralized, powerful and intuitive the administrations tools, the easier your IM system will be to implement.

    Some Examples of EIM Systems

    Now that we have looked at some of the things you should look for in an EIM system, here, in no particular order, is a selection of some of the EIM systems available today. It should be pointed out that this is by no means a comprehensive list of EIM systems available. It's just a cross section to get you started on evaluating various systems.

  • IBM Lotus Instant Messaging & Web Conferencing
  • Formerly known as Lotus Sametime, Version 3 of IBM's Lotus IM offering is a full-featured IM and Web conferencing system. The product comes with its own directory system for authentication, but it can also plug into other LDAP-compliant directory services systems to provide single sign-on capability. Version 3 also includes an IM gateway that allows separate organizations using Lotus IM to communicate with each other securely.

    Pricing runs at $38 per registered user or $25,700 per processor for unlimited extranet use. There are no licensing minimums and so the product offers a viable solution for even the smallest business. There are no requirements to be using Notes or any other Lotus products. The current version supports Windows server platforms and clients.

    The next version, 3.1 (to be announced later this summer) will also include support for Unix and Linux platforms. One of the more notable features of IBM Lotus Instant Messaging, from an IM point of view, is that it can be used to communicate with AOL IM users. For more information, visit www.lotus.com/lotus/offering1.nsf

  • Sun ONE Instant Messaging
  • Sun One IM is a real-time messaging and collaboration product that boasts all of the features you would expect from an enterprise-level IM system and then some. As well as basic IM functionality you get Web conferencing, broadcast level messaging and user configurable client lists. As you would expect, there is a great deal of cross product compatibility with other Sun offerings including interfaces with Sun One Portal Server and Sun One Calendar Server.

    Strong management facilities include features like the ability to prevent users from closing the client interface, user access controls and message archiving within a fully searchable database system. In addition, message conversion API's allow for integration with third party products such as content vetting and anti-virus solutions.

    Client support is some of the broadest available and includes Windows 2000, Sun Solaris 9 and 8, Apple Mac OS 10.1, Microsoft Windows 98, NT, 2000, and XP and Red Hat Linux 7.2 or later. Server support includes Sun Solaris 9 and 8, Microsoft Windows 2000 and Red Hat Linux 7.2 or later. Pricing starts at $30 per user with a tiered volume discount. For more information, visit www.sun.com.

  • Sigaba Secure IM
  • A relative newcomer to the world of EIM, Sigaba Secure IM places a great deal of emphasis on its comprehensive security features, which include integrity checking, end-to-end encryption, and digital signatures for portions of a message or entire conversations. Sigaba supplies "adapters" to plug into NDS and Active Directory or you can choose to use the built-in authentication system. Anti-virus scanning for attachments is achieved via a plug-in for McAfee antivirus.

    From a client perspective Sigaba IM offers both IM and chat capability with multiple person conversations. Support for attachments goes along with other standard features such as groupings within user lists, messaging within groups, user muting and user warning. Central management is performed through configuration files. Server support includes Red Hat Linux and Windows NT/2000/2003.

    Aimed primarily at the financial services, healthcare and government sectors Sigaba IM comes in at $68,000 for a 1,000 user license. Other licensing models, including a two-year license agreement are available. For more information visit www.sigaba.com.

  • Effusia Business Messenger
  • Targeting businesses in the 25 to 500-user range, Effusia Business Messenger from Liquid Communication Systems is a full-featured, stand-alone IM system offering SSL encryption, administrative control of contact lists, broadcast messaging, invitation-only meetings, drag-and-drop file transfer between users, offline messaging and server-side message logging (optionally to an SQL database but to rolling XML logs by default).

    Pricing is based on number of concurrent users. Users are free to install as many Effusia Consoles (the client software) as they like, but may only have the licensed number of users logged in at any given time. Pricing ranges from $40 per user for a 10-user license to $12 per user at 500 users. Currently Effusia has its own user database and authentication system, though a representative for the company says that it will be including an LDAP (and Active Directory)-based plug-in in the next upgrade. For more information, visit www.liquidcs.com.

  • WiredRed e/pop
  • e/pop from WiredRed software comes in two versions -- a Professional client and a Basic client. The main differences between the two are that the "pro" client offers application sharing and remote control, which the company says makes it a valuable tool in IT support situations. e/pop also has a Java-based client and a one-way IM client called e/pop Alert designed for corporate broadcasting.

    e/pop's strengths lie in its strong attention to security, excellent logging capabilities and content vetting. The e/pop client has also has some cool features including a spell check and a message expiration capability.

    Licensing costs are dependent on the number of client licenses, but examples of what WiredRed calls its most popular small business packages work out at around $40 per user. This includes the e/pop server software and the client software and access licenses. Server support is confined to Microsoft operating systems. System requirements from a hardware perspective are modest with the minimum processor requirement of a 486. For more information visit www.wiredred.com.

  • Ipswitch Instant Messaging
  • If all you want is basic IM capability with not too many frills, then Ipswitch Software's Instant Messaging product could be the one you for you. Although it has good levels of security and logging functionality, it lacks some of the more collaborative tools found in other IM products.

    Pricing is some of the most aggressive around at $695 per server with unlimited clients, but support on both the server and client sides is restricted to Windows operating systems. For more information visit www.ipswitch.com.

    For more news and information about instant messaging, go to Instant Messaging Planet.com.