Managing IM's Role in Business: Page 2

A look at strategies enabling your company to tackle the problems -- and harness the potential -- of enterprise instant messaging. Second in a back-to-basics series on enterprise IM for IT decision-makers.
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Continued from page one.

EIM systems are standalone IM systems hosted and operated entirely within the organization. Such systems allow businesses to implement IM management and logging while also bringing the entire messaging infrastructure in-house, removing concerns about security and privacy that arise when outsourcing.

They're also designed to function similarly to other enterprise applications; for instance, EIM systems often include centralized management and directory and user privileging integration with corporate directory systems like LDAP.

EIM systems also typically offer enterprise developers a level of user interface customization and compatibility with existing or legacy software not found with public IM. That paves the way for integration of IM and presence with other enterprise applications, like e-mail clients, portals, and Supply Chain Management solutions.

If there is a drawback to EIM systems, it would have to be that the tenant around which they are designed -- in-house administration -- often limits their usefulness. That's because few EIM systems support exchanging messages with the public networks, a fact that undermines the benefits of omnipresent public IM and seamless communications with partners or clients outside the firewall. (Instead, external users would have to be provisioned corporate accounts on the server and an EIM client.)

Some vendors are aiming to make that process fairly simple. Sun tackles outside communications by extending corporate portal-based IM to external users; once an outside party is registered on a corporate directory, they login to the corporate portal, connect to IM services via secure VPN-on-demand, and communicate using Java-based IM and contact list "portlets."

"By providing secure IM access via a portal, we can provide cross-company IM functionality," said Dan Graves, Sun Microsystems' Group Product Manager, Real Time Messaging. "Although this does not provide cross-network interoperability, which does need to happen in the future, it solves the problem in the near term."

Hybrid solutions

Other EIM vendors are working to safely link enterprise IM with public networks by working in tandem with gateway solutions. IBM has an agreement with AOL that allows AIM Buddies to be added to the contact list in its Lotus Instant Messaging platform (also called Sametime). The contacts aren't merged, however, and those conversations aren't logged -- although they can be, if the company shells out for a public IM gateway.

On the same theme, Microsoft's new Real-Time Communications Server (RTC) allows contacts from MSN Messenger to be added to RTC users' contact lists. As with Lotus, however, businesses must pay for a Microsoft-partnered third-party gateway to manage and relay messages from the public network to RTC.

While seeming like inelegant solutions to the problems of linking controlled, in-house EIM with external networks, such setups aren't without precedent. Other corporate data communication systems, like e-mail, often rely on gateway-like systems to connect to the outside world. Additionally, on both the corporate and national scale, there's the phone system.

"Many countries use different phone systems, yet you can place a call from any system to any system transparently," said Ed Simnett, Lead Product Manager from Microsoft's Real-Time Messaging and Platform Group. "In the same way, IM gateways will allow users from disparate IM systems to communicate with each other."

Adding gateways to EIM systems has the benefit of enabling each company to choose its EIM system based on its individual needs, while also being able to communicate with other organizations via the public network.

The big question of ROI

Of course, EIM software isn't free, and may even require additional investments in infrastructure to support it. Then, there's the potential for additional IT staff to set-up, maintain, and support an in-house system. Still, the added capabilities -- and potentially, piece of mind -- of a wholly in-house solution could justify increased expenses.

"You can run a public IM client, but you are not going to get the application integration, which is where the true cost benefits of IM are to be found," said Kevin McLellan, Marketing Manager, Workplace Collaboration Products, IBM Lotus software. "Add to that the additional security, control, logging, and management provided by an EIM system and it's easy to justify the additional costs created by using and EIM system."

In fact, McLellan said that IBM, having standardized on its own Lotus solution, has seen a decreased demand on its e-mail servers that's only somewhat offset by the additional load created by its IM servers.

On the other hand, the vendors selling IM gateways are increasing the features offered in their proxies in a bid to compete with EIM solutions for the IT dollar. Tomorrow, we'll discuss the specifics of which features IT decision-makers need to look for in choosing which vendor to choose, and which model of solution to implement.

Drew Bird is a contributor to our sister site IntranetJournal. Christopher Saunders, managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com, contributed to this story.

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