Old guard must adaptto new-age messaging

The three kings of enterprise messaging — Lotus, Microsoft and Novell — are looking more and more like clueless bystanders in this new age of carrier-grade messaging services.

ISPs have become the primary e-mail providers for consumers and small businesses, as well as for a growing number of larger enterprises that are not averse to outsourcing their e-mail infrastructures to save a buck. The day will soon arrive when more e-mail boxes are hosted by ISPs than in-house enterprise messaging systems.

Who’s supplying the world’s ISPs with standards-based messaging infrastructures? It’s not the Big Three.

Few ISPs are seriously considering using the proprietary-based messaging/groupware products of Lotus, Microsoft or Novell to support their customer bases. The primary products underlying today’s ISP-based messaging systems include Netscape’s Messaging Server Hosted Edition, Sun’s Internet Mail Server and Software.com’s InterMail.

What these carrier-grade messaging products have that the enterprise-oriented wares lack are Internet standards-based architectures and scalability to support ever-growing numbers of users per mail server.

These are serious vulnerabilities for Lotus, Microsoft and Novell.

Scalability is the ticket to continued success in the enterprise messaging market, as well as in the burgeoning ISP market. Now that multivendor interoperability is taken more or less for granted, the focus of competition in the messaging market has shifted to scalability. How much message traffic, how many users, and how many gigabytes of messages and attachments can be supported on a single enterprise mail server?

Consolidation of the messaging infrastructure is an important issue in controlling total cost of ownership.

Under these circumstances, outsourcing enterprise messaging to ISPs grows even more attractive. Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to outsource the messaging infrastructure to third-party service providers that can exploit scale economies of deployment and administration outside the capabilities of many enterprises?

To date, attempts by old-line enterprise messaging vendors to scale up for the new market place have been a tad pathetic.

Lotus and Microsoft claim that the latest versions of their respective products can support 50,000 to 60,000 Post Office Protocol 3 (POP3) users per server. That’s much better than their historical ceiling of 1,000 users per server, using the vendors’ respective proprietary client software, but still a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of POP3 users per server that Netscape and others claim to support.

On the scalability front, what’s holding Lotus, Microsoft and Novell back is their traditional focus on the enterprise groupware market. Groupware traditionally has been viewed as a bundle of related collaboration services geared to small to mid-size workgroups and accessed from integrated client applications, such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook.

Groupware vendors have supported client/server access to messaging, calendaring, document management and other services through proprietary Remote Procedure Calls (RPC). Proprietary RPCs allow vendors to tweak network access, security and replication parameters common to all bundled services.

Until the advent of carrier-grade messaging rivals, groupware vendors had little incentive to scale up their proprietary RPCs to support more than 1,000 users per server. After all, the Big Three make a sizable chunk of money licensing their software on a per-server basis and have little to gain by allowing users to load more and more mailboxes on fewer physical servers.

The companies also fear that by diluting or abandoning their proprietary RPCs, they will be unable to define any unique value added for their proprietary groupware client applications.

Meanwhile, carrier-grade messaging vendors eschew proprietary RPCs, optimizing their products to operate over commodity standards such as HTTP, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol and POP3. What the products generally lack in groupware functionality (and this is not an inherent deficit, as Netscape’s SuiteSpot proves), they make up in scalability and the ability to work with almost any third-party browser or mail client.

And what they lack in proprietary groupware client software (again, Netscape is an exception) is no skin off their competitive noses. Customers increasingly are comfortable with the idea of accessing all network services from their Web browsers or from two or more stand-alone, standards-based clients adapted to messaging, calendaring, newsgroups and other collaborative services.

Lotus, Microsoft and Novell still rule the roost in the enterprise messaging/groupware market. However, they will continue to lose collective market share to their standards-based rivals until they can address the scalability issue convincingly. Most likely, they will follow Netscape’s lead and reposition their products into two parallel products for the enterprise and ISP markets.

Proprietary-based architectures will continue to live in the enterprise messaging market, but in an ever-narrowing niche. Users want a single enterprise messaging infrastructure that can be deployed internally and externally with trading partners. That infrastructure will have to be built on open standards.