Groupware: Getting into the Groove

Groove 2.0 delivers richer collaboration for users and more control for corporate administrators. Some might find these aims contradictory, but Groove has never been a pure peer-to-peer product. The strategy was always to empower end users to spontaneously share information within and across company borders while at the same time meeting IT requirements for security, data integrity and availability. The new version advances these agendas.

Perhaps the most compelling new capability is real-time viewing and editing of Word or PowerPoint documents. The feature is available from the Files tool, which manages conventional documents within a Groove shared space. When a member of a space selects a Word document in the Files tool, a button labelled Start Co-Edit becomes active, with which members can invite other members into a co-editing session. The default mode is co-review. In this mode, all users are active in the document, and all actions are echoed everywhere.

To create the real-time edit/review feature, Groove Networks Inc.’s developers had to dig deep into the APIs of supported applications. Word and PowerPoint were first; it’s likely that other Office (and non-Office) applications will follow. Making these adaptations can be painful, though, and must be done on a case-by-case basis.

Groove-style collaboration is based not simply on shared software and data, but on shared context. The new Document Review tool delivers context in spades. It’s used for asynchronous, rather than real-time, review. A member who adds the tool to a shared space and populates it with Word, Excel or other documents, can then assign other members of the space to review these documents. Marked-up versions are stored in a tree visible to all members. A threaded discussion inside the tool enables the group to discuss the review process. When everyone is finished, the documents can be batch-exported to a folder and merged.

A major advance in Groove 2 is the Forms tool, which enables end-users to create record sets, forms to populate them, and views to display them. This used to require API-level customization. The Groove Forms tool, which echoes one of the more popular features of Lotus Notes, comes with a set of templates for specific applications.

Groove 2 happily addresses one of the major drawbacks of 1.x: its isolation from e-mail. Version 2 tackles this problem for Outlook users by enabling them to gather a complete e-mail thread plus attachments, create a shared space, and invite the thread’s participants into that space. This fluid transition mirrors one of the more subtle but powerful aspects of Groove – the ability to move seamlessly from a fragmentary message-based dialogue into a shared space.

Searching within and across shared spaces remains a piece of unfinished business. This problem is admittedly hard to solve in a way that doesn’t compromise Groove’s amazingly robust security. But it’s got to be done. Compartmentalization of data within tools, and then within spaces, may be the single factor that most limits Groove’s usefulness.

The collaborative styles woven into the Groove fabric, such as instant messaging and peer-to-peer sharing, can make IT departments nervous. Industry-wide debate continues about how to support these styles in ways that IT can control. Here Groove 2 shines. The product is embedded within a framework that strikes an ideal balance between users’ need for freedom and spontaneity, and IT’s oversight requirement.

Companies that want to control the management service can choose to deploy it in-house. The server is based on IIS and SQL Server, either or both of which may be clustered for high availability. The Groove Relay Server, which provides store-and-forward services for intermittently-connected clients, can also be brought in-house. It doesn’t cluster. Instead, a client-side failover strategy is recommended to assure availability. If the Management Server refers to several Relay Servers, managed clients can use any of them.

Using Groove 2.0 will be a deja vu experience for those who have used or managed Lotus Notes. And although Groove becomes more Notes-like in this version, it stays focused on the small teams that are collectively the engine of the knowledge economy. More often than not, these teams transcend companies and their IT infrastructures. Unlike Notes, Groove supports diverse group formation in a fluid and highly secure way.

Udell is a contributing editor for InfoWorld (U.S.). He can be reached

Groove 2

Supplier: Groove Networks

Price: Groove Enterprise License Pack: $49 per user, annually; Groove Management Server: $19,995; Groove Relay Server: $9,995

Platform(s): Windows 98 or later; IIS server, SQL Server database server

Pros: many new collaboration features; robust enterprise management services

Cons: lacks general search capability; still needs a performance overhaul