Tearing Down IM Barriers

More companies are adopting enterprise instant messaging systems, but interoperability issues often limit their reach to external customers and partners.

For businesses eager to exploit the efficiencies of real-time communications, instant messaging can be a many-splendored thing. The problem is that in most corporations, it's also a many-vendored thing. Witness Rochester Public Utilities (RPU). Although the Rochester, Minn.-based municipal utility has deployed an enterprise-class IM system based on Microsoft Corp.'s Live Communication Server, employees still use public IM networks such as those of MSN Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM).

Though it would simplify management and remove interoperability hurdles to standardize on one IM system, RPU can't shut down access to public networks, because some employees use them to maintain relationships with corporate customers. For instance, RPU uses America Online Inc.'s AIM to communicate with one of its biggest customers, IBM's Rochester facility. The IBM office uses the IM product from IBM's Lotus subsidiary internally but has developed client-level interoperability between Lotus Instant Messenger and AIM (although, according to IBM, new releases of Lotus IM won't provide such interoperability).

"We had rogue IM users using Port 80 to communicate externally, but most of these were legitimately communicating with vendors and customers," says Matt Bushman, an IT analyst at RPU. "We realized that IM was going to be the preferred method of instantaneous interpersonal communication, so we needed to take a proactive approach to getting it all secured."

RPU's multiclient challenges should sound familiar to organizations that have embraced IM. IT administrators would like to deploy a single system that talks to other IM systems using industry-standard protocols, as e-mail does, but that's not an option. More than 80% of IM use today is still through public networks such as AOL, MSN and Yahoo, and each uses proprietary protocols that don't allow users of one system to talk with users on another, according to analysts.

Increasingly, IT departments are addressing internal interoperability and management by deploying an enterprise IM platform and extending it to authorized users beyond the firewall using a secure log-in.

At Houston-based energy broker Amerex Group of Companies, for instance, staffers on the natural-gas side of the business use Yahoo to work with trading partners, while those on the electrical power side use AIM. Amerex deployed Yahoo Inc.'s Business Messenger to streamline internal communications for everyone and external communications for Yahoo users, but those established on AIM still need to use that service for trading.

"Even though we've brought in Yahoo Business Messenger, I can't force the guys using AOL to switch because they can't force their customers to switch. Once a particular IM client gets entrenched, it's hard to get it out," says Amerex CIO Brian Trudeau.

Competing Standards

Although vendor investments in the proprietary protocols that characterize consumer IM networks hinder interoperability, there has been significant movement toward setting standards. The protocols vying for standardization are the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) and the Session Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE).

XMPP is an open-source, XML-based standard developed by the Jabber Software Foundation that also serves as the underlying architecture for Denver-based Jabber Inc.'s Jabber XCP enterprise IM product. SIMPLE is an extension of SIP that's promoted by big guns such as Microsoft and IBM. Earlier this year, the Internet Engineering Task Force approved the XMPP-Core and XMPP-IM specifications. The group is working on approval of SIMPLE.

"These standards are becoming more complementary, and both will see significant adoption. XMPP just got approval as a standard by the IETF, and that gives them a bit more running room and credibility," says Paul Ritter, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston. "But it's not a zero-sum game, and many companies are realizing that they need solutions that are SIMPLE-based as well as open-source-standards-based solutions."

"[The parties] want the protocols they've invested in to be the leader in delivering more traffic than the other, but [XMPP and SIMPLE] are also complementary," says Lisa Dusseault, the IETF XMPP working group chairman. SIMPLE boasts strengths for clients that need to support a full suite of communications tools, such as videoconferencing and whiteboarding, whereas XMPP has focused more on routing between processes as well as between computers, she says.

"A lot of headway has been made on the interoperability front in the last 18 months," says Wilson D'Souza, vice president of collaboration and directory services at New York-based Merrill Lynch & Co., a founding member of the Financial Services Instant Messaging Association (FIMA). "Client demand has pushed vendors to define and focus on a set of protocols."

FIMA was created to raise awareness of IM as a tool for financial services firms, which have been at the forefront of IM adoption. "FIMA isn't about what protocol we use. Our goal is interoperability, low-cost, high-quality products and a common way of provisioning services," says D'Souza.

Managing Diversity

In the absence of true interoperability, users are finding ways to manage the need for multiple services. Businesses committed to IM are concentrating on securing communications, meeting regulatory compliance for message logging and archiving, and managing user identities across a range of clients.

"Last year was a period of rapid growth of IM use in the enterprise, stemming from employees using consumer versions of MSN, AOL and Yahoo," says Ritter. "This year, IT managers are realizing that they need to take steps to manage and control that use of IM." To do so, some companies deploy agnostic IM infrastructure management systems from vendors such as Akonix Systems Inc., FaceTime Communications Inc. and IMlogic Inc. Such tools enable centralized management of IM traffic exchanged by multiple public clients.

Other companies go with an enterprise-class IM system and restrict access to public networks, allowing authorized external users only through a secure log-in. Still others do both, deploying an enterprise IM system for authenticated users and an infrastructure management system to handle use of public clients.

In addition to its internal use of Live Communication Server, which links employees through Active Directory, RPU has deployed Akonix's L7 Enterprise and Enforcer products to secure AIM and MSN use and manage user names.

Concern about regulatory compliance primarily drove Thomas Weisel Partners LLC's decision to purchase IM Auditor from FaceTime in Foster City, Calif. San Francisco-based Thomas Weisel is a merchant banking firm; its salespeople use a mix of IM clients to connect with institutional investors. IM Auditor logs all IM conversations and sends them to the company's supervision and archiving product, iLumin Software Services Inc.'s Assentor Enterprise, says Chief Technology Officer Beth Cannon.

"[IM Auditor] works like a proxy server, so every desktop that wants to make a connection to AOL, MSN or Yahoo has to go through that server. That way it can record all the conversations that go in and out," she says.

Washington-based law firm Shaw Pittman LLP, meanwhile, has avoided some of the control problems faced by other organizations because it deployed Lotus Instant Messenger before employees started downloading IM clients on an ad hoc basis.

"We've been using [Lotus IM] for more than three years, so we got to IM before many [public clients] were brought in," says CIO Nicole Minnick. She says the firm's 400 attorneys, located in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and London, quickly took to IM, as well as to the integrated document-sharing, online-meeting and whiteboarding features within Shaw Pittman's Lotus Notes and Domino applications.

Amerex's Trudeau says he's grateful that he has tools such as IMlogic's IM management products to control the use of public clients. But, like most IT executives, he just wants interoperability problems resolved so providers can focus on enhancing IM capabilities.

"People really need a standard for interoperable clients," he says. "The messaging itself has become a commodity. If [vendors] would focus on getting that infrastructure in place, they could look toward adding services."

How important are standards in the IM selection process?
How important are standards in the IM selection process?
Source: Osterman Research Inc.

How important are each of the following attributes in your selection of an IM system?

Scale is from 1 to 5, with 1 being “not important” and 5 being “extremely important.”

How important are each of the following attributes in your selection of an IM system?
Source: Survey of 193 organizations, Osterman Research Inc., Black Diamond, Wash., 2004

Gilhooly is a freelance writer in Falmouth, Maine. You can reach her at kymg@maine.rr.com.


Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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