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Microsoft Takes Top Honors For Enterprise IM

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If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

IT managers looking to thwart renegade use of consumer-oriented instant messaging tools are turning to enterprise collaboration tools with sophisticated features.

And Datamation readers have picked their favorite, giving top honors in the Enterprise Instant Messaging Software category to Microsoft’s Live Communications Server 2005.

”It’s innovative in that it ties together various other applications in a presence-enabled collaboration infrastructure,” says Robert Mahowald, research manager at IDC, an industry analyst firm based in Framingham, Mass. ”Live Communications Server goes beyond AOL, MSN and Yahoo. It can do so much more than instant messaging.”

The application, which debuted in beta in the middle of last year and was officially rolled out in December, is winning kudos from users who enjoy its integration with other Microsoft applications, such as Outlook 2003, Excel and Word. Users can launch the tool without leaving their productivity programs and can tell immediately if their coworkers are available.

”The driver for Live Communications Server 2005 is that people are enormously productive on these products,” Mahowald says. ”And employees don’t want to give up their instant messaging.”

Live Communications Server 2005 lets enterprise users connect with each other via instant messaging, audioconferencing, videoconferencing and e-mail. He says this real-time connectivity is critical for rapid decision-making and improved collaboration.

Another benefit is the integration with Active Directory, which lets IT managers automatically populate contact lists and set policies, including whether users are allowed to share files or connect via audio or video.

Messages, even if exchanged with people employing consumer tools remotely such as those from America Online, Yahoo or MSN, are encrypted. This appeals to security and compliance-aware network managers, such as Carrie Gifford, senior IT architect at Weyerhaeuser Co., a manufacturer in Federal Way, Wash.

”You don’t have to employ virtual private networks — and their overhead — to talk to or communicate with folks outside the company,” Gifford says.

Weyerhaeuser helped pilot test Live Communications Server 2005 in combination with MSN Messenger Connect for Enterprises for its 50,000 users and more than 30,000 desktops.

A major area where Live Communications Server 2005 has come in handy is with the company’s help desk operations. IT staff members can instantly communicate with one another to quickly find answers for their local and remote users.

Gifford says the drive for instant messaging came from customers and trading partners who wanted to communicate with the company’s sales team in real time. ”Live Communications Server 2005’s presence tools let them see who’s online and available and can answer their questions right away,” she says.

But compliance also was important for any instant messaging implementation. The company, which is regulated under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, logs and audits the instant message transactions of its employees via a connection to SQL Server 2000, Gifford says. That information is stored in searchable SQL databases in case the company must produce it for the legal, financial or human resources departments. ”Live Communications Server 2005 lets us follow policy.”

Another benefit the company has seen from rolling out the presence tool is the load it has taken off the e-mail servers. In fact, Weyerhaeuser encourages employees to use instant messaging to collaborate with one another rather than overloading the e-mail system — saving on server CPUs and storage requirements, Gifford says.

Gifford adds that she excitedly awaits additions to the product that support integration with the company’s PBX, audioconferencing and more. ”This tool lays the groundwork for where we want to go with telephony.”

Telecom Italia Group also is using Live Communications Server 2005. The telecommunications provider set up servers in Rome and Bari, Italy, to support failover and automatically reroute messages. The company also employed the federation feature of Live Communications Server 2005, which lets various business units create and maintain their own list of users, but share that list with others.

Telecom Italia developed classes of users, giving each grouping different privileges. One group was given only the right to use instant messaging and see when colleagues were available. Another was allowed to transfer and share files and applications. A final group was allowed to participate in videoconferences.

Remote workers also are able to access instant messaging via Live Communications Server 2005. The company says it hopes to add on videoconferencing access in the near future.

Readers can expect additional control features, including granular control over instant messages with outside users, in Live Communications Server 2005 Service Pack 1, which is scheduled to be released in the second quarter of this year.

Following close on the heels of Microsoft in this category was IM veteran IBM with its Lotus Instant Messaging & Web Conferencing 6.5.1. Rounding out the top three was IMlogic, Inc.’s IM Manager. Other finalists were FaceTime Communications, Inc.’s IM Auditor 5.0 and Parlano, Inc.’s MindAlign 6.0.

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