Collaborative Intranet now!

In their beginnings, Intranet and collaborative software were separate technologies. Today, the two are often blurring into a single technology. The result is that vendors are increasingly adhering to Internet standards-based interoperability. And, as Internet-style client access becomes universal, tools support and server-side functionality come to determine which vendor succeeds and which fails.

Although the company's Notes software came under considerable pressure in the early days of Intranet, Lotus still remains the collaboration software vendor to beat. In some cases at least, its lead in tools remains the differentiating factor

Today, blurring in the line between the corporate Intranet and typical groupware tools occurs as they begin merging to form "collaborative Intranets." Traditional competitors such as Lotus Development Corp., Cambridge, Mass., Novell Inc., Provo, Utah, and Microsoft, plus Internet/Intranet upstarts like Netscape Communications Corp., Mountain View, Calif., RadNet Inc., Cambridge, Mass. and others are opening up their tools to support standard protocols, Web browsers and other devices not typically associated with a desktop computer.

Even today, analysts still have trouble pinning down what collaborative Intranet groupware is. For its part, Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research defines the market to include "applications that incorporate ad hoc decision-making, information sharing and consensus-building within a business system." Perhaps only a handful of applications meet that aim. In its survey of this domain, Forrester identified collaborative Intranet benefits to include improved processes, improved departmental problem solving, knowledge sharing, empowered sales management and other traits. (See Fig. 1.)

The Zen of Intranets

For I/S to succeed in newly converging collaborative and Intranet applications, managers must appeal to varied interests within the corporation. A new set of development skills is required to blend disparate technologies.

Fig. 1

Source: Forrester Research Inc.

A wholly new application at a major university shows what new collaborative Intranet apps look like. Cambridge, Mass.-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Business is piloting a collaborative Intranet project that will provide students with a "virtual classroom" for each course. Students can discuss class-related topics, check and send messages to their professor, read the class syllabus, or make sure they are up-to-date in the course reading, said Anne Drazen, assistant dean and chief technology officer at the Sloan School of Business.

The pilot application is based around RadNet's WebShare technology and is being built by Vista Associates, a small consultancy based in Wayland, Mass. Students and faculty will access the system with a standard Web browser, according to Paul Cole, president of Vista Associates. In addition, there will be online profiles and photos of each of the student in a particular class or program. Online polling will give prospective students an idea of which classes are right for them. Groups of students working in a specific project will be able to set up private sub-groups within the discussion areas to track project status and brainstorm electronically.

Eldon Greenwood, director of project strategy for Novell, said he sees a couple of trends in the industry, beginning with customers consolidating around extensible messaging solutions, such as moving from disparate E-mail systems to one solution providing strong E-mail as well as other collaboration tools. "We're also seeing more acceleration from proprietary to standards-based environments, driven by the Internet's open solutions," Greenwood said.

Leading the charge into the open standards arena are newcomers like RadNet and Netscape. Netscape, especially, raised the bar for openness by virtually relying on standard Internet protocols to connect its Communicator front end to a bevy of Netscape servers, including SuiteSpot 3.1, on the back end. Netscape's solution relies on specific tools within its products and does not contain a development environment for expanding or customizing its solution to a specific business need.

Although much smaller than Lotus and Netscape, RadNet provides an example of significant server-side functionality in the age of the Web. RadNet's WebShare 2.1 is based on the company's pledge to support "360 degrees of openness" with its application server approach, which sits along side a standard HTTP server and provides access to mail, discussion threads, news groups, Web pages and databases (via ODBC.) WebShare is fully customizable using its built-in development environment, which utilizes an event-driven modeling approach. WebShare can also call out to other DLLs, while the client side can access both JavaScript and ActiveX, said Reed Sturtevant, RadNet's chief technology officer. Like RadNet President Don Bulens, Sturtevant is a former hand at Lotus.

WebShare, designed to compete directly with Lotus Notes, had its mobile capabilities beefed up with the August announcement of WebShare Mobile, a replication tool that enables laptop users to still have access to all their pertinent data while disconnected from the network. In August, RadNet and Lotus apparently resolved a legal dispute that had hovered over young RadNet's prospects. The dispute had centered on the hiring of Lotus employees by RadNet and its president, Don Bulens.

One of RadNet's advantages is that it can fit into computing environments running multiple platforms and application types, filling some of the spaces left uncovered by a heterogeneous system. WebShare can be based around any relational database, letting customers better leverage their existing (information systems) I/S investments.

With the release of GroupWise 5.2 this past September, Novell has added support for workflow and imaging, shared folders and discussion groups or threads. Users can access the system via a traditional GroupWise client, via the POP3 or IMAP protocols, using telephone dial-in to check messages, as well as link personal digital assistants (PDAs) to the application. Version 5.2 still does not contain a development environment, but does provide a Windows interface so users can access Java or ActiveX components.

"We're not saying you have to use one thing or another -- we provide the appropriate interface levels so customers can use their own tools. We try to accommodate," Greenwood said.

Microsoft has also jumped into the collaboration fray, with the release of their Outlook client (bundled with Office 97) and Exchange Server 5.0 for Windows NT. The combination of the two offerings gives users E-mail, group scheduling, contact management, simple workflow and account tracking. While the Outlook client can access other mailboxes via standard protocols, it is optimized for use with Exchange. Part of that optimization utilizes Outlooks Form Designer for customizing the environment, and the ability to use Active Server pages with Microsoft Internet Explorer Web browser. As with most of its product offerings, Microsoft is leveraging Exchange and Outlook's integration with the Windows NT security and directory model to simplify user administration, as well as provide scalability across multiple NT boxes in a corporate environment.

According to Stan Sorensen, product manager for Exchange Server, Microsoft views the Outlook/Exchange offering as low-level collaboration, just part of a larger space that includes decision and operational support.

"We don't claim to play in the decision support and operational area, neither would Notes or GroupWise," asserted Sorensen, "this solution is not for that." For companies looking to jump into a higher level of collaboration based around decision support, Sorensen, not surprisingly, recommends moving to something like the Microsoft BackOffice offerings that are built for high-end transaction processing.

Meanwhile, market head Lotus is determined to maintain its lead. Lotus is on the verge of launching version 4.6 of their core collaboration product, the second major release since announcing Domino just over a year ago. While still loaded with proprietary technology and its own scripting language for building applications around the Notes Object Store, Lotus has opened Domino and the Notes client to standards-based protocols, such as HTTP in release 4.5, which allows users to combine data from the Object Store with "Design Objects," resulting in dynamically published Web pages.

In addition, Lotus added one, seemingly simple feature in version 4.5 which it had been missing: group scheduling and calendar functionality. "We were stupid about calendaring, we let GroupWise go too far needlessly," Lotus' Bisconti said. Version 4.6 and a planned 5.0 release of Notes/Domino will continue to "attack the closedness" of the environment, according to Bisconti. LDAP and IMAP protocol support will be included in version 4.6, while 5.0 is being designed to be "dirt simple."

Picking the right tool

Each of the tools have their strong points, but how do you pick which one is right for your endeavor? Ron Rassner, vice president of consulting and marketing at Creative Networks Inc., a Mt. Horeb, Wis.-based consulting and market research firm, outlined a general rule of thumb for three of the products mentioned above. His company recommends tools based on an understanding of their customer's business requirements, followed by a "filtering" process with the technical and business units of the customer.

"We look at the critical business processes being utilized in the company and zero in on a finite number that are working moderately, need to be improved, and those processes the technology could help," Rassner said.

If an organization is determined to remain "thoroughly" with open standards against all other things, then his company would recommend Netscape's products. "They provide a strong level of collaborative capability built on accepted, international standards," Rassner said.

If openness is not a concern and the organization is already running Microsoft products, with communication needs that do not extend beyond simple workflow and bulletin board access, then Microsoft Exchange and Outlook is the way to go, said Rassner. This solution is good for companies that do not have a strong application development strength, Rassner added.

If an organization has intensive production-level workflow requirements, strong resources, rapid application development requirements and complex documents would be more suited towards the Lotus Notes/Domino solution, said Rassner.

One company that thought they had picked the correct tool but midway through an extensive pilot program switched gears completely, is Mitel Corp., a telecommunications equipment manufacturer with 1997 revenues of $696 million (Canadian) based in Kanata, Ontario.

In early 1996, the company began taking a look at its Internet strategy, and how the exploding technology could be used internally as well as in the company's product line. Consultants were brought in to evaluate Mitel's infrastructure and implement the appropriate tool, which was determined to be a Netscape-based solution, according to Mike Sullivan, director of emerging IT solutions. The primary application being built was a restricted access Extranet.

From August to Christmas 1996, the consultants began piloting and implementing the Netscape solution. In September 1996, the first version of Domino was released. Being a Notes shop, Sullivan's group began toying with the latest from Lotus. Meanwhile, the consultants were having a myriad of problems with the Netscape solution, Sullivan said. The initial foray into the Domino environment seemed successful, sparking companywide Lotus versus Netscape debates. But, Sullivan said the debates were more of a religious nature rather than one of technology.

Mitel brought in a individual consultant and gave him three weeks to build a prototype of the Netscape solution using Domino. The consultant produced 95% of the functionality in those three weeks, sealing the fate of the Netscape project.

Sullivan gave three reasons the Domino solution succeeded over Netscape in his shop: First, from a developer perspective Domino was easier to implement because of its embedded database, it had extensive security capabilities and the tools replication capabilities. Secondly, from an end-user perspective, the Lotus solution was an improvement in the ability to add or update content in a document. "With HTML, you never get what you think you'll get, which leads to a big learning curve to get over 'that HTML thing,'" Sullivan said. Lastly, the infrastructure supporting the two products was vastly different. "With Netscape, it is not just [a Windows] NT server, but also several Netscape servers -- for mail, database links, Web access -- each had its own administration tools that didn't integrate well," Sullivan said.

It required 2,500 lines of scripts to build the applications under the Netscape implementation, never mind that it frequently froze the system, requiring the I/S staff to reboot the server. "We had just come off some tremendous growth in the company, and I/S got nailed for [the lack of] robustness in the network," Sullivan said.

"Just the administration with Domino was so much easier," said Sullivan. "It was like night and day between the two."