Messaging battle heats up

With Microsoft Corp recently outlining a roadmap for its revved-up Exchange server, Oracle Corp. launching a collaborative suite of its own and a new version of Lotus Notes on the horizon, competition in the groupware could intensify this fall.

The next version of Microsoft Exchange server software, code-named Titanium, is scheduled for availability in mid-2003 and will be released to hold customers over before shipping a future version of the software based on its .Net code.

Titanium will be based on the same code used for its predecessor, Exchange 2000, Microsoft’s messaging and collaboration server software. Titanium will not be part of Microsoft’s .Net portfolio, though it will support the technology Microsoft has developed for delivering applications and services over the Internet. A future release of Exchange, code-named Kodiak, is the one that will be built on the .Net code base, according to Kevin Hunter Microsoft Canada’s Mississauga, Ont.-based senior marketing manager for .Net servers.

Hunter said the significant feature for IT managers will be Titanium’s tight integration between the application exchange and the Windows 2000 operating system, specifically around Active Directory (AD). For example, Hunter said, AD enhancements can synchronize only the delta changes in an organization, cutting down the bandwidth requirements and decreasing the time necessary to synchronize large environments. Titanium will also support “volume shadow copies” or snapshot backups, and clustering to support multiple processors.

Glen Brookman, national director of technology for KPMG LLP’s Canadian operations, who oversees about 5,000 users at 50 locations, is currently using Exchange 5.5. After cutting over form Lotus Notes about three years ago, KPMG is now planing to upgrade to Exchange 2000 this fiscal year, he said.

“Exchange 2000 is pretty solid but we are very interested in seeing where Titanium goes and seeing if they can achieve the feature-rich stuff we’re looking for on the OWA (Outlook Web Access) side, the wireless and especially on the security side,” Brookman said.

So far Brookman has been happy with Exchange’s reliability and performance, ease of installation and maintenance, and programmability that allowed his team to add customized systems. However, he is now looking for better scalability of the databases, and an OWA look and feel more closely tied to the native Outlook client. He also said that “mailbox recovery efforts are nasty, and the antivirus ATI works, but it’s tough.”

Although KPMG was an early adopter of Blackberry technology and Exchange’s OWA feature, with 5000 users across the country the company will take its time with any big upgrades to Exchange, Brookman said.

“Exchange is not just a messaging system. It’s the core day-to-day working platform for everyone. We need stability, we want to see how the early adopters do, and (make sure) global and national architecture people are happy with it,” he said.

Other new features include better antivirus and junk mail protections; improved integration with Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail software; built-in support for third-party mobile devices, such as Research in Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry, and bolstered unified messaging features allowing users to work with voice mail, e-mail and faxes in one window, he said.

Attempting to grow beyond its traditional boundaries, Oracle recently unveiled the Oracle Collaboration Suite – a set of applications running on Oracle’s basic software foundation of 9i Application Server and 9i Database. The package features e-mail, real-time conferencing, voicemail, workflow, and an LDAP directory while built-in interfaces let users work with the Microsoft Outlook Web client, or any Web browser, and link to servers running Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes.

According to Oracle, the idea is to use the Oracle database to store, manage and protect all this information, and let any kind of client device access it, whether handheld computer, PC or cell phone. Oracle cites two main benefits with its latest approach: the ability to handle lots of data and users by running on clusters of servers, and much lower license and operating costs compared with Microsoft products.

Brent Chin, Mississauga, Ont.-based national solutions manager for Oracle Canada, said that the company is looking at customers who are currently unhappy with the cost of maintaining a number of backend Microsoft Exchange servers. Whether they are running 9i or not, he said, Oracle has the technology to manage all communications system through one central repository.

Chin said the Oracle Collaboration Suite will be available in Canada by September, and he expects the Canadian price to be in line with the US$60 per named user detailed at Oracle’s Redwood Shores Calif. launch conference. Although the competition for Exchange and Lotus Notes may appear stiff, Chin said “Oracle sees the market potential for a collaborative suites.”

“If Oracle is really serious about this offering, it could become a credible alternative to Lotus/Microsoft,” analyst David Ferris, of Ferris Research Inc., wrote in a recent research note. “If Oracle can deliver much better reliability and lower TCO (total cost of ownership), along with high Outlook fidelity and voice innovation, many businesses might be distracted from their current Exchange/Notes orientation.”

Not surprisingly, Microsoft’s Hunter is unruffled by the prospect of going head-to-head with Oracle over messaging platforms. “We have 60 per cent of Canadian enterprises on Exchange,” he said. “Our research shows some Lotus Notes and some Groupwise, but I don’t see [Oracle] in the marketplace and I don’t see them as a threat. I see it as just another re-purposing of a database engine that might not be optimized for the usage of a messaging transport layer.

Lotus Software from IBM Corp., meanwhile, is taking the slow lane to improving the Lotus Notes/Domino messaging platform. The computer maker says the upcoming release, expected to ship later this year, addresses customers’ requirements and paves the way for tighter integration with other IBM products.

In April Big Blue presented a pre-release of Lotus Notes and Domino 6 to beta testers. Ed Brill, the company’s Cambridge, Mass.-based senior manager of enterprise messaging, said the product has been in beta since April 2001.

IBM wants Lotus and Domino to integrate with other offerings, such as Tivoli’s management software and DB2, IBM’s database. To that end, Version 6 employs Tivoli’s “predictive health monitoring tools,” that examine log files and statistic reports to anticipate problems before they occur.

– with files from IDG News Service