Making sense of IM networks and clients

Use of both personal and business instant messaging (IM) within organizations continues to dramatically increase, with individuals running multiple public (and to a lesser extent, private) networks. However, interoperability remains a critical demand by end users. Indeed, vendor reluctance to standardize protocols has led to tactical or unauthorized reliance on IM clients that can establish a single console from which to send messages to users on various IM networks. This is problematic for many organizations, which possess little or no understanding of best practices concerning governance and technology management.

META Trend: Through 2005, organizations will struggle to define a business case for enterprisewide deployment of instant messaging (IM). However, widespread internal use of public IM networks will trigger investment in connectivity services, security tools, governance efforts, and architecture activities. In 2006, enterprise IM will proliferate as it becomes an embedded component within portal solutions, integrated within applications, and a core service within broader real-time communication and collaboration platforms. Interoperability issues will persist into 2007 (mobile services, presence management), due to fragmented standards and competing vendor agendas.

The widespread adoption of consumer-oriented IM technology has inevitably crept into the enterprise. A recent META Group survey reveals that 61% of individuals polled use IM at work, and that 57% of this use is personal as opposed to business-related.

More alarming still is the number of individuals using public IM networks in the enterprise – particularly AOL’s AIM/ICQ (39.6%), Microsoft’s MSN Messenger (35.2%), and Yahoo’s Messenger (28%).

Because use of public networks is largely unregulated by the organization (which must protect itself against malware and implement sound corporate governance and compliance policies), significant damage can occur.

As organizations begin considering appropriate measures, it is imperative they understand the many networks and clients running in the enterprise, what is driving their use, and the associated risks. Public networks most likely to be running in the enterprise include AOL (via AIM), Yahoo, MSN, ICQ, IRC, and Jabber. Each network relies on proprietary protocols or extensions to standard protocols, which is why they do not interoperate.

These contrast with private (or enterprise) IM networks that might also be present, including Microsoft’s Live Communication Server (LCS), IBM/Lotus Sametime, and Jabber’s XCP. Indeed, there are dozens of smaller private networks (e.g., Omnipod, Parlano, Reuters, Bantu), though they tend to be used in particular vertical niches.

Lack of interoperability among public networks has created a market for client applications, which enable consolidation of multiple buddy lists into a single interface – ideal for individuals that might run, for example, both AIM and MSN Messenger clients on a single machine.

This reduces the number of clients that must be running, affords users access to the various functions of the IM program (e.g., chat, file sharing, video, audio), and even enables more extensive capabilities around logging and archiving of conversations. While the majority of users are likely to operate with multiple clients, some are turning to alternative solutions.

By far, the most popular of these alternatives is Trillian. Others include Imici, Odigo, GAIM, IM2, and a host of Jabber-based solutions (e.g., Psi). In addition, some users have turned to Skype (an Internet telephony provider) and Groove, given their widespread adoption. Trillian, for example, achieved notoriety by being publicly scolded and actively thwarted by MSN, Yahoo, and AOL.

More interestingly, however, is that Trillian recently emerged as a bridge between public and private networks when IBM’s AlphaWorks released a plug-in for Trillian Pro, enabling the pay version of the popular IM client to access Sametime servers.

The AlphaWorks plug-in has its own terms and conditions, and different product milestones from Sametime, and it supports only Windows.

It is neither part of the core Sametime product nor the main direction IBM will pursue, because the plug-in provides only client-side interoperability, whereas Sametime is focused on server-side interoperability.

To leverage the free patch, one must be a valid Sametime user and have purchased Trillian Pro (approximately $25). Nevertheless, it highlights the movement by Trillian (and others from the public arena) to enable back-door interoperability not only between public networks, but also between public and private networks.

The timing of the release coincides with the release of Microsoft LCS 2005 and its connectivity pack, which will enable interoperability between LCS and MSN, Yahoo, and AIM.

Fundamentally, the public IM networks are exposing SIP translation interfaces in their clouds, enabling enterprise IM vendors to send SIP traffic to them. We believe IBM will sign a similar deal soon, but the patch through Trillian is an effort to minimize the market impact of LCS 2005 and provide rudimentary, albeit unofficial and non-certified, connectivity between Sametime and the public networks in the short term.

To date, we have seen little impact of Microsoft’s connectivity pack, but we expect increasing adoption as organizations begin to standardize on a federated model. With the IM market still relatively immature, organizations concerned with security and a sense of interoperability between public and private networks are also turning to the smaller enterprise IM providers for non-certified interoperability (e.g., Omnipod, Jabber).

This enables the automatic import of IM contact lists from other networks, and a status bar constantly showing connectivity to other IM services.

However, many organizations are reluctant to standardize on a vendor platform that does not have relationships with the networks, forcing these vendors to move to a certified approach within 12 months.

So, while public-IM to public-IM interoperability is not likely to emerge soon, organizations can capitalize on basic interoperability by deploying a private IM network that can bridge private and public networks.

Still, some individuals use multinetwork IM console clients in the enterprise.

Again, the driver for all of this is the lack of agreement around a common standard for IM. A common standard for enterprise IM should emerge by 2007/08 (between the current leading protocols SIP/SIMPLE and XMPP), similar to how the e-mail market evolved a decade ago, and we believe Trillian (and others) will not gain significant traction, as viable alternatives continue to emerge.

The primary reason is that while Trillian solves some interconnectivity issues, Cerulean Studios, the maker of Trillian, does not offer a support contract, and the application itself does little to solve security and compliance issues, which are primary drivers of a cogent IM strategy.

While public networks are currently the de facto standard for business-to-business IM, there should be other considerations for deploying an enterprise IM or IM hygiene solution (e.g., FaceTime, IMlogic, Akonix). These tools are more suitable for enterprise use and provide:

1) connectivity between multiple networks;

2) hygiene services to ensure malware does not enter the network; and

3) infrastructure to support corporate governance and compliance initiatives.

More specifically, an enterprise IM solution enables connectivity between multiple networks, message encryption within the firewall, authentication, standard naming conventions, and some logging/archiving capabilities, with IM hygiene solutions used for more administrative capabilities (e.g., to cleanse messages from malware, protect personal/confidential information, log and archive all communications, map ambiguous screen names to employees in the corporate directory).

When considering IM, organizations should not view it as a standalone package, but as an important tool among many others in a comprehensive real-time collaboration and knowledge worker infrastructure. Under this model, users can transition from IM, Web conferencing, and IP telephony, where IM servers become true rich-media servers.

IM is flexible enough to be embedded at multiple layers within the enterprise infrastructure (e.g., portal layer, application level, groupware system, ad hoc tool), and it can span multiple departments (e.g., sales/marketing, IT, customer relations) and be used in numerous scenarios (e.g., providing real-time problem resolution in a customer relations department, alerting investors to major changes in stock price/volume, recording interaction among project teams for archival purposes, enabling distribution to missing members).

Bottom Line: Multiclient instant messaging environments are the standard currently, though larger vendors will eventually provide more open clients (e.g., Microsoft’s Istanbul). In the interim, organizations must find ways to minimize their impact on the organization (e.g., malware threats, compliance/regulatory issues), while nurturing the desire of individuals to use IM for productivity gains.

Business Impact: IM has moved beyond a chat productivity tool into the area of being a real-time communication and collaboration application that improves response time and increases efficiency when its use is sanctioned by the organization.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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