IBM crosses signals: Domino or Workplace?

Rumors about the impending demise of IBM’s Lotus Notes/Domino platform are nothing new. However, when IBM announced its Lotus Workplace messaging and collaboration platform in late 2003, the fate of the venerable combination seemed lost in space.

Workplace, for the uninitiated, is a messaging and collaboration platform that’s powered by IBM’s WebSphere Web Application Server. Many Lotus customers are wary about Workplace because Big Blue already markets Lotus Notes, another messaging and collaboration environment, which is based on another application server, the near-decade-old Domino.

At first, IBM was careful to position Workplace as an offering for shops without Notes and Domino—or any other messaging platform, for that matter. Over the last 12 months, however, IBM has disclosed more ambitious plans for Workplace. Officials are adamant that Notes and Domino aren’t going anywhere, of course. However, at the same time, the company is delivering, or plans to deliver, more tools to promote Domino and Workplace coexistence–or to facilitate full-fledged Domino-to-Workplace migrations. At some point, IBM officials say, Domino and Workplace will converge into one product.

It’s not surprising, then, that some longtime Notes/Domino developers take a decidedly pessimistic view of that platform’s future. 'As far as I can tell from the buzz, Domino is on the way to its grave within the next few years, and I will be forced to find an alternative,' says Robert LaRock, a programmer with Standard Abrasives. When that happens, he says, Workplace probably won’t be on his short list. Standard Abrasives is a small company, and LaRock doesn’t have the budget or in-house expertise to transition to Workplace or WebSphere. 'We have several critical applications running on the Domino platform, in addition to mail,' LaRock explains. 'Our company has a considerable investment in Domino development skills and infrastructure. It will be painful to abandon it.'

However, all this begs the question: Why should longtime Lotus customers such as Standard Abrasives jump ship to Workplace? After all, Domino is justly celebrated as a platform that enables the rapid development of collaborative applications, and many shops have made substantial investments in custom Domino-based software projects.

What’s more, before IBM delivered Domino in 1996, the programming community concentrated heavily on the Notes client. If customers make the move to Workplace, they’ll want to take these applications based on Domino/Notes with them. Depending on how significantly they have invested in the platform, this could be a daunting proposition. Unless IBM pulls the plug on Notes and Domino, some say, there’s little chance these customers will budge on their own.

'None of my clients has made the migration, nor are they intending to,' says Patricia Egen, a principal with Notes and Domino consultancy Patricia Egen Consulting. 'They are too confused—as we all are—by the IBM plan, and until they have a more comfortable opinion of what’s actually in the works, they are not choosing to move.'

Nevertheless, IBM believes many customers will want to do just that. What possible incentive, short of threatening to pull the plug on Domino and Notes, could IBM give existing customers to convince them to make the move to Workplace?

Domino is RAD
Domino’s biggest selling point is its ease of use, particularly from a programming perspective. Its primary development environment, Domino Designer, uses a script-based language called LotusScript, which many Notes and Domino developers compare to Visual Basic, both for its simplicity and rapid application development capabilities. 'We can whip out an application in under a week and sometimes get the first prototype in just a couple of hours,' says John Dillon, developer and administrator for a $100 million research and development company.

This is often the case, Dillon says, even when applications have demanding workflow requirements, thanks largely to the Notes and Domino combo’s excellent workflow management capabilities. There’s canned support for workflow management in the base Domino Designer IDE, and IBM offers a standalone Lotus Workflow product, a graphical design tool and workflow engine that sits on top of Domino and speeds the creation and deployment of apps that have sophisticated workflows. 'Obviously the bigger systems like travel or purchasing require quite a bit more time to put together, but lessons learned in the big projects have really streamlined our development process for smaller projects as well,' he comments.

Dillon isn’t the only developer who sings the praises of Domino’s RAD and workflow management capabilities. Take longtime Notes and Domino shop Standard Abrasives, which has built several custom applications on top of Notes and Domino, including a research and development project tracking and management support system, an action request system, and an employee records application. All involve complex workflows that touch a number of different applications and systems.

In this respect, LaRock says, the ability to quickly and cheaply build powerful collaborative applications helps offset the comparatively high cost of Notes and Domino’s annual licensing and maintenance fees. 'Frankly, the yearly licensing for Domino is exorbitantly expensive for us. However, the high cost is offset by the low cost of development,' he confirms.

LaRock doubts he and his team of Domino developers could duplicate their work with as little effort in a Workplace environment. 'Our custom applications revolve around automating various workflows and integrating them with Domino’s ability to easily present applications using Notes clients and Web browsers,' he confirms. 'We make extensive use of Domino’s ability to create workflow, notification and tracking applications. The primary appeal is the ease and speed that this can be done using Domino.'

For this reason, many longtime Notes and Domino programmers, including several who have developed solutions for Workplace, say IBM’s next-generation messaging platform has a long way to go before it’s as powerful and easy to use as Notes and Domino. 'It’s probably around what Notes R1 has in [terms of] capabilities. The programmability is just not there yet and won’t be for years. At this point, it’s really usable only if you want to use the Lotus applications bundled with it,' comments Ken Yee, a principal with custom Notes and Domino development house Key Solutions.

What about IBM’s positioning of Workplace as a solution for existing Notes and Domino shops that want to standardize on a hybrid J2EE and Web services application architecture? It’s a nice thought, Yee says, but even in this case, Workplace isn’t exactly a straightforward proposition. 'It’s nice that it uses standards, but none of the Lotus Workplace applications are portable to other J2EE servers,' he concludes.

Coexistence, not competition
IBM’s Russell argues such complaints are beside the point. Certainly, he concedes, today’s Workplace isn’t as robust a collaborative platform as Notes and Domino, but the latter products have almost two decades of development behind them, versus two to three years for Workplace. More to the point, Russell says, speculation about the future of Notes and Domino is counterproductive and unnecessary. As far as IBM is concerned, they aren’t going anywhere: Notes and Domino 7 are in beta, and Big Blue also has Domino 8 on the drawing board.

'We’re very concerned with protecting [customers’] assets,' Russell says, talking up a coexistence strategy in which Notes and Domino are deployed alongside Workplace, and in which the two products eventually converge into one—at this point, Release 8, slated for 2007 or 2008—that gives customers the option of deploying both or either. 'We understand there are hundreds of thousands of Domino applications in the world—maybe millions—many of which are Notes applications, and we are very interested in making sure that investment base is protected, so those applications will continue to run.'

But how will they continue to run? In this respect, IBM sees Workplace as a long-term replacement for Notes and Domino. This isn’t to say that Notes or Domino is going away, just that they’re being moved–to the periphery. In IBM’s vision of the collaborative, knowledge-sharing platform of the future, Workplace is at the center, while Domino is off to the side somewhere.

Taking the plunge
Andreas Nebel, a programmer with GEDYS Intraware, a German software vendor that develops CRM and HR solutions and products for Notes and Domino, says his organization has deployed Workplace alongside its Domino system. GEDYS plans to maintain both systems, because it hasn’t been able to move its custom Domino applications over to Workplace, Nebel says.

'Our company has applications based on Domino,' he says. 'We did not move the applications; we implemented a completely new product [Workplace].' The biggest impediment to migrating the applications, Nebel says, is the Domino and Workplace architectures are so different. Besides, he adds, it’s relatively easy to expose Domino applications to Workplace via the WebSphere Portal. So, there really wasn’t a pressing need to recode the applications for Workplace, anyway. 'The technologies are too different. We can integrate our products in Workplace around our Web interface,' he says. As for the Notes client, Nebel says IBM has promised to provide a plug-in that lets Notes interoperate with Workplace. (See related story, 'Making a more versatile Workplace IDE.')

So why make the move to a Workplace technology that even he admits is not quite ready for prime time? The promise of working in an environment that is more friendly for J2EE and Web services, Nebel says, coupled with the attraction of IBM’s Java-based Workplace Client Technologies, which gives Workplace a full-fledged, standalone client that’s comparable to Notes. (See related story, 'It’s all about J2EE and Web services.') Then there’s the fact that IBM is clearly committed to getting Workplace right, he adds. So, even if he can’t endorse Workplace as a solution for existing Notes and Domino customers, Nebel says they should have it on their radar screens. 'It is very difficult, and I cannot advise customers to move to Workplace,' he says. 'It is too early. Maybe in the next few months or years.'

But that shouldn’t stop interested Notes and Domino shops from familiarizing themselves with the technology, he adds, noting 'IBM has good and working coexistence tools.'

For the time being, Key Solutions’ Yee says, the ideal Workplace adopter is one who doesn’t have a significant investment in custom Notes and Domino apps. 'If a customer is using Domino purely for e-mail and has no custom applications, they’d be a good candidate for a Workplace migration. Or if a customer wants users to have an internal secure version of Hotmail with some added collaboration and document storage applications, then they’d be a Workplace candidate,' he concludes. 'For customers with complicated in-house Domino applications, I would not recommend … [migrating to] Workplace.'