Sun Boosts IM Integration, Features

The move continues efforts by the major names in enterprise solutions to roll instant messaging into other collaborative offerings.
Continuing efforts by the major players in enterprise solutions to tie instant messaging into other collaborative solutions, Sun Microsystems is taking off the wraps off an improved version of the company's IM platform, in connection with a new release of its Sun ONE Collaborative Business Platform.

Due to launch formally in May, Sun ONE Instant Messaging 6.0 offers improved integration with the Sun ONE suite's calendaring server. As a result, the system will send out real-time pop-up notifications for event reminders or task notifications.

In connection with the Sun ONE Portal Server, the IM 6.0 release adds message archiving -- using the storage and search components of the portal server to record and sort through one-on-one chats, conferences, and polling transcripts.

Also new in 6.0 are pre-built, standalone "portlets" that provide a quick look into users' IM buddy lists and calendars. Clicking on a contact or date launches the full application.

The new release also adds moderated conference rooms -- suitable for moderated question and answer sessions, for instance -- and the option of "invisibility" to users' customizable presence states.

Those features build on an already robust Java-based secure messaging platform. Sun IM -- which runs on Sun Solaris 9, Microsoft Windows and HP-UX -- supports store-and-forward messaging, as well as rules enabling users to have incoming alerts routed to e-mail or their SMS-enabled phones. It also supports broadcast alerts with substantial polling features -- enabling users to distribute multiple-choice polls.

Although it's able to be deployed independently, Sun ONE IM is intended for integration with the Sun ONE Identity Server, providing for single LDAP sign-on for the portal, IM and other applications. That integration also provides for controls over users' messaging and presence-gleaning rights, based on their roles in an organization. Based on users' roles, they also could have access to subscriptions to different alert-based data feeds.

Combined with support for remote workers or partners via a secure VPN-on-demand feature, the integration with Sun's authentication and portal servers are positioned as an alternative to achieve public IM-like reach to outside partners and clients, without public IM shortcomings.

"What these really enable us to do is eliminate any use of the public networks -- it gives us the advantage of using public networks in a corporate setting," said Jennifer Belissent, senior product marketing manager at Sun. "We can do the same thing, and at the same time you still control the namespace and you know who you're communicating with, since they're registered within your corporate directory. And it's secure, based on their authentication and authorization through our identity serer and through SSL access and secure remote access."

The 6.0 release also provides a host of improved APIs for integration with other services and products. A services interface offers a way to syndicate presence, notifications, IM, and conferencing services, while a new message API provides integration with third-party applications -- such as anti-spam or anti-virus applications.

New APIs also provide for integration with other authentication mechanisms or portal servers. Belissent said a rival portal vendor had already availed itself to the API, "knowing that we had already done tight integration with our portal."

"That's probably not going to put us in well with our portal group," she joked, "but it's a proof point that our IM as a development platform is very powerful."

The Sun ONE Services API allows for extending the IM platform's services -- or embedding those features into another application or for "click to talk" sorts of implementations on the Web.

The release continues the trend of vendors' efforts to integrate IM into other collaborative offerings. IBM earlier this year revamped its Sametime IM server into a platform for sharing presence with other Lotus apps, especially Web portal and mobile systems. Oracle is poised to deploy greater IM and collaborative tools as part of its application suite, while Microsoft is aiming to release its long-awaited "Greenwich' Real-time Collaborative Server sometime later this year.

"We really see IM as being not just a standalone product, we see it as part of a broader communications and collaboration offering," Belissent said.

Moves in that direction make sense from a business standpoint, providing companies eager to begin using IM and collaborative tools with a single, all-in-one solution, or collaborative add-ons to existing enterprise software in which clients have already invested heavily.

The drive to produce an all-in-one offering also has the smaller, specialists startups working to ink alliances on their own. But with the big, well-known players readying or already going to market with their own integrated offerings, packages sewn together by bands of specialist startups seem likely to face toughening challenges in the marketplace.

"It's an advantage the big players have, to do that sort of integration in-house," Belissent said. "It might squeeze the smaller players out."

Looking forward

Sun's original involvement in IM came about in the 1999 licensing of SoftBase's NetLert platform. Since then, however, the company has been steadily developing its own implementation of the technology, which debuted in 2001 as an add-on pack to the iPlanet Portal Server.

"The goal is slowly, through the next releases, to increase the integration with our other products, to tighten the web of our communications and collaborative offerings."

That plan will continue with the next update of Sun IM, likely later this year, which will tie into Project Orion -- the company's initiative to support the same versions of Sun LDAP and identity servers across all its products. That version, 6.1, also will add support for Linux.

Although the initial release of Sun ONE IM (then called the iPlanet Portal Server Instant Collaboration Pack) accompanied interoperability testing with America Online's AIM network, that project seems to have fallen by the wayside, as have AOL's compatibility pilots with other IM vendors. Instead, Belissent said, the company plans to support the Session Initiation Protocol and SIMPLE, and aims to have standards-based interoperability with the release of a new product -- now codenamed "Hermes" -- late in the year, or in early 2004. "Hermes" also will include support for multimedia and greater SMS messaging features.

"We are committed to supporting standards, and now, SIP and SIMPLE seem to us as the best option," she said. "They'll support a lot more than just IM applications, so we'd like to support standards to enable presence and real-time communications to grow in that respect."

Belissent also added that the company remains in "pretty serious discussions" with some of the IM networks, but declined to comment on any specifics.

Belissent said Sun is looking into ways to mobilize its IM platform. For several years, it's been working with partner NTT Data Corp., which licensed the platform and is using the technology as the foundation of a mobile solution. Sun also is developing a J2ME client.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com






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