Managing IM's Role in Business

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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This week, InstantMessagingPlanet is going back to the basics. We're pleased to bring you a series of articles covering the fundamentals of enterprise instant messaging and what you need to know as an IT decision-maker: on what exactly enterprise IM is, why and how best to leverage it, ideas for purchasing an enterprise IM solution, and some examples of best-practices in leveraging IM technology.

As we saw in Part One of our weeklong guide on the fundamentals of enterprise instant messaging, many businesses now use the technology as an important element of their communications structure. But while some companies have proactively embraced IM as a key business application, many more are reacting after finding that IM has spread virally into their networks and become a critical part of their day-to-day businesses -- but largely without authorization and oversight.

Today's article will look at some of the different implementation strategies available to enterprises looking to make sure that IM becomes a communications solution, rather than a communications problem. Tomorrow, we'll cover some of the specific features that IT buyers need to consider in choosing an enterprise solution for IM.

Companies face a difficult choice, now that they're coming to understand some of the issues associated with the use of instant messaging in their businesses. They can either block IM -- potentially alienating employees who have come to rely on it as a communications tool -- or they can take steps to manage its use. Many, as you might expect, are choosing the latter, and are looking for ways to start overseeing and controlling IM.

Most of the potential problems stem from the fact that free public IM clients and networks (like AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and MSN Messenger) do not offer security, monitoring, logging, or any other features commonly associated with corporate IT applications. Indeed, managing IM use is a problem being identified as one of the major IT challenges facing business today -- but executives are unsure of where to begin, explained Jon Sakoda, Director of Products at IMLogic, a company that produces IM management software.

"CIOs know that IM is being used, but they have no idea who is using it or what they are saying on it," Sakoda said. "These same CIOs approve monitoring and control of other forms of communication and realize that IM is no different."

There are generally two models that businesses are using to bring IM use under their control. One is for to implement an IM "gateway" application, of which there are a number available. The other is for an enterprise to implement its very own, in-house IM system independent of the public networks. We'll look at IM management systems first.

IM Gateways

IM gateways allow a company's IT staff to control and manage the use of public IM systems within the organization, which means employees can continue using their current, familiar IM clients, and thus, their existing IM networks and contact lists. Because the messaging infrastructure is hosted by the public network provider (e.g., AOL, MSN or Yahoo!,) gateways also provide many of the capabilities available with in-house enterprise IM (EIM) solutions at a fraction of their cost.

These IM gateway systems work by acting as a proxy, intercepting all IM traffic -- including logons, conversations, and file transfers -- and logging and approving that communication. For example, when a corporate user starts his or her AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) client, the logon request is captured by the IM proxy. The IM proxy then okays and relays the user's logon to the AIM network, acting as an intermediary between the local client and the remote IM server. By interceding in this way, the IM proxy is able to examine and apply controls to the IM traffic to and from that user.

IM gateways then can typically enforce a number of additional safeguards on messaging activity -- for instance, they can implement virus scanning on received files, can block specific users from chatting externally or at all, and even apply content filtering. Content filtering is of special interest to enterprises concerned about compliance issues or corporate secrecy. For example, if a user were to mention "Project X" in an IM, the message could be blocked or the user's manager notified of the communication.

Additionally, IM proxies have robust reporting and logging systems allowing administrators and managers to review IM conversations. This has many advantages, such as ensuring that productivity is not being compromised by personal IM use, and that disclosure and industry regulations are being followed.

As with any other form of communications monitoring, use of IM gateways can be invisible to the user, or the systems often can display warning notifications that users' conversations could be logged. In addition, managers also typically also distribute reminders to employees that, as a enterprise-administered application, IM should be treated by users with the same care as e-mail.

IM gateways are typically licensed on an annual, per-user basis.

Enterprise Instant Messaging

While some companies look to apply controls on top of public IM, others are looking at a more comprehensive solution. Looking for an even greater degree of control and privacy, some businesses opt to implement an Enterprise Instant Messaging, or EIM, system.

Continued on page two.

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