As Its Collaboration Offerings Grow, Lotus Tries to Fend Off Exchange

by Jacqueline Emigh

Lotus is beefing up its collaboration offerings to fend off Microsoft's Exchange. Jacqueline Emigh examines what's on the horizon and details issues you'll encounter with securing some of Lotus' collaboration tools.

IBM's Lotus Gets Bigger on Collaboration

By Jacqueline Emigh

IBM is banking on Lotus Domino's collaborative support to help fend off Microsoft Exchange. For their part, Domino/Notes administrators are enthusiastic about the Lotus Sametime and QuickPlace collaborative apps, but some of them are biding their time about upgrading to new releases of Lotus's products.

"Microsoft Exchange is doing phenomenally well. How can IBM respond? One of its strategies is to broaden the category to include collaboration, as well," observed Jasmine Noel, who heads up industry analyst firm J Noel Associates.

QuickPlace 3.0, the latest release of Lotus's instant messaging software, offers increased integration with Lotus's Sametime collaborative software. End users can now start a Sametime chat from within QuickPlace, for instance, and see which other users are online, said Tim Kounadis, senior market manager for IBM Lotus Software.

In Sametime 3.0, also available now, IBM planned to add support for a SIM gateway, aimed at secure communications across supported Sametime communities. Late in the development cycle, though,this feature was pulled from 3.0, in favor of putting it in a future Sametime release instead.

Microsoft Network (MSN) and America Online (AOL) are also contemplating support for the emerging SIP/SIMPLE protocol, Kounadis pointed out. Other new collaborative and administrative features, though, did make it into Sametime 3.0.

Many users are happy, anyway
Many users seem happy with Sametime and QuickTime without further enhancements, anyway. At Ryder Systems Inc., for example, QuickPlace and Sametime are supporting a Notes-based knowledge portal from a third-party software provider.

"We're using QuickPlace instant messaging as a replacement for some of our phone calls. Before calling people, we ping them first to make sure they're available. This helps us to cut down on phone tag," according to Dave Baildon, Ryder's group director of product and knowledge management.

Sametime comes into play at Ryder for collaborative meetings around topics ranging from financial budgets to truck dispatch schedules. "We also use Sametime to find people who are knowledge experts in particular areas," Baildon added.

Meanwhile, Lotus has also launched the first edition of LearningSpace - Virtual Classroom, a "collaborative learning environment" for online instruction in realtime. Virtual Classroom builds on capabilities already present in Sametime and earlier editions of LearningSpace, according to Susan Lawler, global offerings manager for IBM Mindspan Solutions.

Lotus has been beta testing the new editions of its collaborative software among users that include Daimler-Chrysler and CUNA, for example.

"We've gone live with Virtual Classroom a couple of times. It's really making a difference, because we can offer two types of curriculum and hold breakout groups for each," said Marlo Foltz, manager of eSchool production at CUNA. CUNA has experimented with a live polling function, too.

Not everyone, however, has been willing to work with beta software. Ryder, a QuickPlace/Sametime user since the year 2000, is interested in some of the other new features in QuickPlace and Sametime, according to Baildon.

"We haven't gotten to 3.0 yet, though. We don't do betas. That's just our policy, because we don't have the time. Once the new software is out there and approved, we'll test it in a nonproduction environment. We'll bang on it till we're sure we're getting the best out of it, and then we'll acclimate (our users) to it," he said.

Meanwhile, facilitites management outsourcer Unicco, a former cc:Mail customer, is now using Notes, Quickplace, and Domino.doc to help build a series of integrated portals for external users, customers and employees. Unicco's future plans call for using Sametime meetings to help cut down on employee travel costs, said Jeff Peterson, Unicco's VP of technology.

IBM, however, is running into new competition lately in the collaborative space, as well. Documentum, for instance, recently purchased eRoom. "But IBM isn't nearly as concerned about companies like this than about Microsoft," Joel pointed out.

Another IBM strategy, of course, is to position Notes/Domino as a better administrative environment than Exchange. For example, Lotus Domino/Notes 6.0, also released this month, adds capabilities ranging from user interface enhancements to built-in spam filtering and better support for server consolidation, Kounadis said.

"Many Notes 4.6 customers who didn't upgrade to Release 5.0 are planning to upgrade to Release 6.0," he contended.

Having it both ways?
Other analysts, too, have pointed to IBM's tendency to pitch Lotus's products in both collaborative and administrative directions. "IBM has a comprehensive product family that relates closely to and integrates with the messaging/collaboration of Lotus Domino/Notes. It includes Lotus QuickPlace (a team collaborative application); Sametime (a real-time conferencing, instant messaging, and online presence awareness application); Discovery System (a search and retrieval server); Domino.Doc (a document management client application), Domino Enterprise Integration connectors, and Everyplace ( a mobile access server)," according to a recent report from IDC.

"IBM will be addressing IT administration requirements with the next version of Domino, (6.0), that (are) expected to include enhanced performance (replication, client/server interactions, network compression); policy-based management, statistics monitoring, roaming user support, ASP administration and configuration, and centralized directory," IDC noted.

With QuickPlace and Sametime 3.0, as well as the new LearningSpace - Virtual Classroom, IBM appears to be rolling these two strategies together. Even in 2.0, some users are finding QuickPlace to be a more secure IM environment than other alternatives.

"Lotus gives you security at the application, content, and network layers. QuickPlace is encrypted end-to-end," maintained Ryder Systems' Baildon.

Without protections like these, IM can be "like having a business meeting in the street -- and this just isn't acceptable to a lot of companies," Joel observed.

Uncontrolled IM traffic can also tie up bandwidth on expensive WAN links, according to Joel. "But if chat technology can be secure - if administrators can control how it flows through the network - then it will be ready for primetime as a business tool, and this is what IBM is trying to deliver."

The latest editions of IBM's collaborative apps are clearly succeeding at keeping some customers in the Domino/Notes fold. Ryder was a long-time Notes shop anyway, but the transportation firm turned to an outside consultant a couple of years ago for help in deciding whether to use QuickPlace/Sametime or a third-party vendor to meet its "business needs" for collaboration and messaging.

"It's our understanding that IBM has sped up performance in 3.0. This will help us a lot, especially with users who are dialing in by modem," Baildon said.

"Sametime will have new tools for measuring who's using it, and how much. QuickPlace will start letting you keep track of which QuickPlace groups you're in. Up to now, we've been relying on spreadsheets to do this."

SIP Connector and Crossplatform Considerations
To get the most out of Sametime, QuickPlace and Virtual Classroom, administrators need to know the ins-and-outs of these products, of course. Even when Sametime does add SIP support, for instance, you'll still need to learn how to install a separate upcoming product from Lotus, known as the SIP Connector.

Lotus's collaborative applications require use of a Domino server. Domino provides greater crossplatform support on the server side than the collaborative apps. On the other hand, virtually all of Lotus' products give you more multiplatform operability than Microsoft does.

Let's take Sametime, for example. Sametime is a client-server application for collaborative activities such as chat, screen sharing, shared whiteboarding, meetings, and audio/video streaming. The Sametime server operates only on Windows 2000, Windows NT, and IBM iSeries and pSeries servers. You can configure the Sametime server as either a Domino or an LDAP server, though.

Domino, on the other hand, is already available for Windows 2000, NT, IBM AIX Version 4.3.3x and 5.1, Sun Solaris 2.8/SPARC; Red Hat 7.2 and SuSE 8.0 Linux, running on Intel; and IBM iSeries and zSeries servers. The IBM iSeries and zSeries support multiple instances of Domino.

Which client does what?
The Lotus Notes client runs on Windows and Mac machines. Sametime, however, works with not just Notes clients but five other client applications:

  • Web browser;
  • Sametime Connect client;
  • Sametime Meeting Room client;
  • Sametime Broadcast client
  • H.323-compliant clients such as Microsoft NetMeeting.

What's more, Sametime's six client applications each have different sets of capabilities. The Sametime Connect client is a Windows app which contains a "presence list" showing which users are online. In contrast, Sametime Meeting Room client is a Java applet which runs on the user's browser during "instant" and "scheduled" meetings.

The Meeting Room and Broadcast clients each play a role during broadcasts of streaming media content. The presenter uses the Meeting Room client, whereas the audience-members use the view-only, noninteractive BroadCast client.

To complicate matters a bit more, the Notes client can be used for accessing a Sametime Discussion or TeamRoom database, but not for accessing the Sametime server home page or Sametime Meeting Center on the Web. These pages can be used from a Web browser only.

Authentication, Encryption and Password Administration
Sametime 3.0 supports authentication through both Domino SSO and Secrets and Tokens databases. In fact, the Sametime 3.0 server is set up to support Secrets and Tokens by default. Future editions of Sametime, however, will use only SSO for authentication, according to Lotus's Sametime 3.0 Administrator's Guide. If you're using a third-party product such as Netegrity SiteMinder which relies on Domino Web server API (DSAPI) filters, you should make sure that Sametime 3.0 is set to support Secrets and Tokens.

Chat activity between the Sametime 3.0 server and Sametime 3.0 and 2.5 clients is always encrypted. If you're using Sametime clients lower than version 2.5, though, you'd better stay on top of things.

These earlier versions allow end users to decide to conduct unencrypted chats, even when using a Sametime 3.0 server.

Another option is to encrypt all T.120 screen-sharing, whiteboarding and audio/video data that passing between the Meeting Room and Broadcast client.

You can save time on password administration by enabling automatic login for "Sametime Connect for browsers." To do so, go to the Configuration - Community Services option" of the Sametime Administration Tool. Then, select "Allow Connect users to save their user name, password and proxy information" from the checkbox.

Alternatively, in situations requiring tight security, you might decide to force users to specify a "meeting password" that will be good for that particular meeting only.

Sametime 3.0 gives you a lot of other security of management features, including charts, logging tools, and a variety of administrative controls. Supplied through the Sametime Administration Tool in 3.0, the charts are for monitoring free disk space on the server, Web statistics, meeting services, broadcast services, audio/video services, and community services.

Separate tools are built in for Sametime logging and Domino logging. You can also stipulate which activities will be logged, and whether activities will be logged to a database or to text files.

Ironing out the quirks?
Lotus' products allow for a lot of flexibility on both the collaborative and administrative sides. Still, though, administrators have encountered some glitches in Sametime, QuickPlace, and Virtual Classroom, as well as in Notes. In beta testing, IM hasn't always panned out well, according to CUNA's Foltz. Foltz, however, blames the problems on training issues. "Some of our users have never done instant messaging before," she acknowledged.

For its part, Ryder has come across difficulties with both whiteboarding and "working offline" functions.

"We often get error messages when we try to synchronize - and in whiteboarding, sometimes it works better to attach the presentation to the whiteboard as a (Microsoft) PowerPoint file," Baildon said . In the Release Notes for Sametime 3.0, Lotus says the whiteboard can be saved in either of two formats: Rich Text Format (RFT) or Sametime Whiteboard (SWB).

"We're hoping that Lotus has ironed out these little quirks of 2.0," according to Ryder's Baildon.

The sky's the limit?
Meanwhile, IBM has big ambitions for future development. In subsequent editions of the Virtual Classroom product, Lotus is expected to add more capabilities in the areas of both administration and "blended learning," or integration with other sorts of electronic and classroom media.

Ultimately, Lotus will build an infrastructure for "tying (Virtual Classroom) into back end systems and launching differerent applications," Lawler predicted.

Lotus is also eyeing the possibility of bringing together Sametime and QuickPlace into a single product, Kounadis admitted. The two software offerings are already being sold side-by-side in some product bundling deals.

This article was originally published on Tuesday Oct 15th 2002