Vendors outfit public IM for business

Instant messaging is gaining momentum in the enterprise, often times through employees’ grassroots adoption of public IM networks used without the consent of the company’s IT department. With this viral uptake in mind, vendors are moving to fortify popular public IM services with security and other features designed to meet corporate needs.

Many CTOs are unaware of the strong foothold public IM systems such as America Online Inc.’s AIM and Microsoft Corp.’s MSN Messenger have gained in their companies, according to Dana Gardner, research director at Aberdeen Group Inc., in Boston. Enterprises need to take control over IM, either by investing in a private IM system or by securing public clients, he said.

“Companies are not going to be able to kick out the use of these public IM systems because their users internally are used to it. Enterprises will need to replace it with something and replacing it with a hybrid is the first best step,” Gardner said.

A hybrid approach, which tacks security and auditing tools onto existing portal-based IM services, “makes a great deal of sense because the infrastructure is already there, the usage pattern is there, and the adoption is there,” he said.

IM-Age Software on Monday launched a security and auditing tool designed to ride on top of public IM clients such as AIM, MSN, ICQ, and Yahoo. IM-Age for Desktops installs on the desktop, compressing and encrypting message data that is then shipped to a central server inside the firewall. The system can also be deployed to augment enterprise offerings such as Lotus Sametime.

“IM-Age helps organizations capture and secure instant communication so they can leverage IM as a business application,” said David Pulaski, CEO of IM-Age, in Houston. “IM can’t flourish in the corporate environment until the [security] risks are lowered.”

Unlike other enterprise-focused IM systems that require installation of proprietary network infrastructure and reconfiguration of firewalls, IM-Age seeks to leverage existing public networks that have gained widespread traction in corporations despite the lack of security features or regulatory compliance tools.

“Our technology is a layer that sits on top of those clients. We don’t want people to have to reinvent the architecture for IM. That is already there,” Pulaski said. “We want to build a layer on top to allow people to take advantage of what is already there.”

IM-Age captures, audits, and lets enterprises report on communication occurring on public IM platforms. The tool archives all sessions from IM networks, which is important for organizations that need to comply with regulatory requirements for such industries as healthcare or finance. In addition, IM-Age for Desktops uses blowfish 448 encryption for internal and external communications, and can secure words, phrases, or entire IM conversations over public IM networks, according to IM-Age officials. The system also includes authentication capabilities used to verify that a message recipient is who they say they are, and an alerting feature that provides keyword tracking and reporting to pagers, phones, e-mail, and SMS systems, according to the company.

IM-Age for Desktops is available now with the purchase of a server at US$2,995, and US$39.95 per desktop. The offering also is available in a hosted model.

Another IM provider, IMlogic, also is eyeing the links between the enterprise and public IM clients.

In the fourth quarter, Boston-based IMlogic plans to roll out a server that would allow an enterprise to become a paid subscriber of a public IM network service. The subscription product is designed to link any secure enterprise IM system to a public IM service, allowing corporate workers to conduct real-time communications with customers or partners over the public network, according to Francis deSouza, founder and CEO of IMlogic.

IMlogic has not yet announced any relationships with IM service providers, but deSouza said the company is farthest along in discussions with Microsoft’s MSN.

“We provide software that would let an enterprise become a paid subscriber of MSN or Yahoo, for example. That allows an enterprise to have access from within their internal applications to the users on MSN,” deSouza said.

The company also offers a security product called IMLog, which is designed to provide network visibility, security, archiving, and reporting. IMLog supports multiple networks, adding security to or reporting on traffic patterns across private or public IM systems, according to deSouza.

Unlike IM-Age, IMlogic believes corporations should invest in private IM infrastructure in order to gain control of the namespace. If a worker leaves the company, he or she can keep their public IM name, but an IT controlled namespace would allow an administrator to retain control of screen names and access.

The challenge with deploying a secure, private IM infrastructure, however, is that today it does not talk to the outside world. Enterprises should develop secure IM networks, and then bridge them to public offerings, according to experts.

In addition, IMlogic is currently developing an IM application server designed to connect back-end corporate applications to public IM systems. Code-name Linkage, the server will allow applications to generate notifications and receive real-time queries directly with public and private IM clients. The offering is due in the fourth quarter.

Heavyweights such as Microsoft and AOL are also laying out plans.

Microsoft recently detailed its forthcoming messaging product, the Greenwich Real Time Communications server, which will ship in the first half of next year. The server is designed to bolster collaboration capabilities in .Net with presence and real-time messaging functions. In addition, the offering will leverage IMlogic’s IMLog archiving and security tool, which Microsoft licensed earlier this year.

With its consumer IM service now 34 million users strong, rumours have swirled that AOL is planning to leverage its AIM service to edge into the enterprise IM space. The company has been packaging Netscape and AOL assets to create an AOL Strategic Business Solutions division, according to sources close to the company. In addition, a Web site designed to sell its services centres on enterprise IM services, calendar, collaboration tools, and content services.

According to Aberdeen’s Gardner, if an enterprise wants to reach or target consumers with its real-time communications efforts, some kind of relationship with public services such as AOL, MSN, or Yahoo may be a good idea.

“If I am just doing b-to-b activities then [a proprietary IM network] is sufficient. But if I want to do b-to-c activities with IM then I will probably have to deal with the big guys in the public IM space anyway because they have all the customers,” Gardner said.

Scarlet Pruitt, a Boston correspondent for the IDG News Service, an InfoWorld affiliate, contributed to this article.