IM invades the enterprise

Instant messaging (IM) has infiltrated the enterprise in a big way. The once consumer-oriented technology for sending and receiving text messages in real time rivals e-mail in its rate of adoption among business users.

Fans of the technology consider it a key communication tool among colleagues and customers; foes worry about its well-documented potential for poking holes in company firewalls. But love it or hate it, virtually everyone agrees that IM is now a serious corporate IT issue.

Industry analysts seem to be watching IM’s corporate invasion with a combination of awe and apprehension. Framingham, Mass.-based analyst firm IDC predicts that the enterprise IM market will grow from approximately 5.5 million worldwide in 2000 to 180 million in 2004. That growth rate is staggering by any standard. If corporate IM usage does grow at that rate, business users will be sending nearly 2 trillion instant messages annually by the end of next year. IM may be the single fastest growing form of IP communication.

The sudden and explosive growth of IM in corporate environs has resulted in “individuals employing a vital communication medium without forethought ...,” observed David Smith in a recent report. Smith, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., likens the situation to the light-speed enterprise proliferation of e-mail, another initially consumer-oriented technology. In the case of e-mail, it took more than 10 years for companies to recognize the need to address issues of security, reliability and business policy, and the consequences of that failure were costly.

“Enterprises must pay proper attention to IM usage now,” Smith wrote, “lest they repeat the painful lessons taught by e-mail.”

Gartner research director Rob Batchelder echoed Smith’s warning in another report: “As Instant Messaging for Business becomes prevalent, it is essential for companies to extend the same level of control over IM that exists currently for email ... .”

Analysts at Gartner forecast that 70% of all enterprises will use IM in some form in 2003. By 2005, Gartner predicts, IM will represent 50% of all business-to-client communication.

Increasingly, the responsibility for evaluating and maintaining IM technology falls to the IT department. That is as it should be, said Rahul Abhyankar, product manager at FaceTime Communications, an IM management services company in Foster City, Calif. Companies provide their employees with a standard set of software applications chosen by, and receiving ongoing support and maintenance from, the IT department; Abhyankar believes IM should be handled in the same way.

“IM software should be put through the same selection process as any other piece of software used by the company’s employees,” Abhyankar said. “There’s just no reason not to.”

The list of challenges associated with effective IM management can seem daunting. Security, of course, is a top concern. IM gives viruses and spam a new doorway into the corporate network. Along with new network-level threats stemming from IM-based file transfers, managers must plug new leaks that threaten a company’s intellectual property caused by IM users engaging in off-business-policy chat. Managers must establish new policies to restrict access to content through corporate IM communications, enable business rules that restrict key words or phrases, and they may have to restrict communication among certain groups within the company.

IT managers will also want to consider how to integrate IM into their companies’ enterprise applications, including corporate portals, customer relationship management (CRM) applications, enterprise resource planning (ERP) packages, supply-chain management (SCM) solutions, professional services automation (PSA) software, e-commerce systems and even database applications.

IT managers in highly regulated industries face especially onerous challenges when it comes to IM. For example, the New York Stock Exchange, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Association of Stock Dealers require financial services companies to log, audit and archive three to seven years’ worth of their customer-facing transactions and communications. Health-care organizations must comply with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations, government contractors must follow Department of Defense (DoD) regulations, and energy industries are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Adding to these headaches are evolving IM standards. Although there has been a great deal of discussion about them, none has yet been widely adopted. New IM vendors are also swarming into this space, offering a range of solutions and services from which IT managers much choose best-of-breed offerings.

If that is not enough, IM also provides employees with yet another way to get the company into trouble -- by sending offensive or inappropriate messages. IM etiquette has yet to be established.

So does IM pay off with actual productivity gains? The numbers are a bit sketchy but, IM’s potential for causing problems on the corporate network notwithstanding, it presents companies with benefits that some industry watchers expect to become serious competitive advantages. Analysts at Jupiter Media Metrix, Darien, Conn., for example, see instant messaging as “the killer knowledge management application” that links a company’s internal “knowledge seekers” with its internal experts.

FaceTime’s Abhyankar agrees: “If you look at what drives IM adoption, it’s time sensitivity. IM is real-time communications, so it’s ideally suited for [the] time-sensitive nature of communications. In today’s business environment, where it’s all about speed, it is important to get the right information to the right person at the right time, irrespective of where they may be. IM is a great way to achieve that; and so it is, in the end, a technology that increases the competitiveness of companies.”

IM can also reduce meeting costs within a company by connecting geographically disparate employees for low-cost, instant interactions. Even if they are not continents away, employees can use IM to exchange the many bits and pieces of information that push a deal or a project forward, without the need for time-consuming sit-down meetings. IM also has the potential to facilitate improved communications with customers.

And finally, there is this: Whether the company knows it or not, employees are probably already using IM. Banning instant messaging in the enterprise may simply be more trouble than it is worth, and giving in to the IM onslaught may be the best way to control it.

The key to coping with the new challenges presented by enterprise IM, said Abhyankar, lies first in understanding IM usage within the organization, and then in the ability to detect it.

“For IT, it’s extremely important to understand the business of their companies’ users,” he said. “In other words, they should understand how and why these employees are using IM. I believe that the best approach here is to just to go to the business units and ask them why they’re using IM. Find out who they’re talking to. Are they talking mostly to other employees, or to customers and partners? Maybe one group desperately needs file transfer capabilities over IM, but the rest of the organization doesn’t. Asking these kinds of questions will give IT managers an idea of the role and importance of IM in their organizations. Once they understand that, they can begin to lay down effective policies.”

Abhyankar’s company, FaceTime Communications, entered the instant messaging market in 1999 with a suite of call-center products. Those products are still in use today, but FaceTime is becoming better known for what it calls “next-generation, real-time communications management software.” Its IM Auditor Enterprise product provides users with a tool for centrally managing and controlling IM communications among employees, partners and customers without requiring a change to the existing messenger client or IM network community.

“The basic value proposition [of IM Auditor Enterprise],” explained Abhyankar, “is to detect the usage of IM in the enterprise, to identify which employees are using IM, which networks are being used, what buddy names the users are employing, and to help IT put policies and best practices around that usage.”

FaceTime IM technology has been used to expand the capabilities of a number of IM services, including the big three. The AOL Instant Messenger Enterprise Gateway was built by FaceTime. The MSN Messenger Connect Service relies on FaceTime technology to provide auditing and archiving capabilities. And Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition can be integrated with FaceTime.

FaceTime belongs to a growing category of specialized IM vendors offering a range of additional tools and services that span the various services. Some examples of other products in this category include:

* The Ipswitch Instant Messenger (Ipswitch), which brings the message server in-house for increased usage control and uptime. The Ipswitch server uses 3DES encryption to encrypt all communication between the client and server.

* IM Manager, from Log IM, provides control, security, reporting, archiving and compliance features over public and enterprise IM clients.

* The Bantu IM and Presence Platform offers encryption and firewall compatibility, and is reinforced with SSL-standard security integration. Bantu also features secure authentication to a third-party master directory and supports message logging for data retrieval and data mining.

* The Jabber Communications Platform is an open-source application for enterprise instant messaging built around the XML-based Jabber open protocol. It comes with an engine on which service providers, enterprises and software developers may create custom IM, VoIP and other collaborative solutions.

But do not ignore the veterans in this market sector. There is at least one vendor -- IBM -- that has been focused on enterprise IM for a number of years. IBM’s Lotus software division developed the SameTime product about five years ago. Big Blue used it internally at first, and then began offering it commercially.

IBM is currently in the process of renaming its venerable SameTime product, splitting it into Lotus Web Conferencing and Lotus Instant Messaging. The idea is to, in the words of the company, “represent the two specific functions the original name represents.”

The soon-to-be-renamed SameTime product family includes three components: the SameTime server, the SameTime Connect client and the developer toolkits. The server provides the platform that manages the flow of information between the SameTime Connect clients, including text messaging, streaming audio and video, a shared whiteboard and shared applications. Users tap the SameTime Connect client to exchange ideas and present information through instant messaging. The developer tool-kits give companies a way to embed real-time collaboration into a wide range of Web- and Windows-based applications.

There are also specialized IM services to consider. Reuters Messaging, for example, was launched in October 2002 by media company Reuters Group. An instant messaging application for the financial services industry, Reuters Messaging is billed as a high-security IM service designed for the kinds of transaction-oriented communications typical of financial services users. According to Reuters, its IM service is designed to integrate into the terminals and systems financial professionals use to do business, as well as work with their Microsoft Windows-based desktops.

The Reuters IM service is one of the first IM products to be based on the open, industry standard Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). Products written using SIP allow end users to speak with one another across different platforms.

Perhaps one of the most important trends in the instant messaging space is the appearance of IM solutions in big enterprise software packages. PeopleSoft, for example, included instant messaging capabilities in the recent 8.8 release of its Enterprise Portal software. The IM features utilize IBM’s Lotus SameTime technology for presence detection, Microsoft’s Real Time Communications (RTC) Server 2003 (formerly code-named Greenwich), and Yahoo’s Messenger Enterprise Edition.

“The ability to exchange instant messages within applications and portal frameworks is essential for improving business efficiency across the enterprise,” said PeopleSoft CTO Rick Bergquist in a statement issued during the CeBit trade show in Germany.

Collaboration platform vendors are also incorporating IM capabilities into their offerings. Sun Microsystems, for example, unveiled a new real-time collaboration product in April that integrates instant messaging with its e-mail, calendar, search and content management features. The SunONE Collaborative Business Platform utilizes the SunONE Messaging Server to provide instant messaging and presence capabilities. (“Presence” refers to the ability of an application to tell when a user is online and available to receive a message.)

The next generation of enterprise-focused IM products offers features with productivity in mind. Users can access their IM clients from a multitude of platforms, from wireless and handheld devices to desktop PCs. The latest IM technologies strive to provide users with everything they could want for highly productive, real-time interactions, including support for multi-way chat, robust file transfer and even whiteboard functionality.

When considering IM applications for their organizations, IT managers should look for features that support their corporate practices, FaceTime’s Abhyankar said. Among those features they might want to look for:

* A central console that supports remote administration and control functions.

* Support for policy management and logging.

* Configuration utilities that allow the IT manager to establish standard parameters and monitor activities.

* Directory integration features that allow IM software to function as part of the network, utilizing its directories and address books.

* Encryption that will safeguard IM transmissions.

* Logging capabilities that allow IT managers to track exchanges during IM sessions.

* Presence management that gives IT managers the ability to detect whether IM users are online, and that allows them to choose when and how to announce a user’s presence on the network.

Looking forward to future capabilities, many of which Microsoft promises will become part and parcel of its real-time communications environment, IT managers might also want to consider features such as:

* Support for video transmission in real time;

* Virtual workspaces, where employees can post information for simultaneous review by members of their working group;

* Voice support (voice over IP); and

* Whiteboarding -- perhaps the most exciting new IM capability, it lets users simultaneously share a graphic space.

Beyond specific product capabilities, Abhyankar suggests IT managers give careful consideration to corporate policies that address the content of instant messages. These kinds of policies will probably fall to the HR department, he said, but IT managers should be involved in setting those policies because, ultimately, they will be enforcing them.

“Content policies should spell out, in writing, any banned language, such as profanity, threatening language, off-color jokes, taboo subjects, confidential issues and just about anything [else] that could be construed as slanderous,” he said. “IT should have a clear sense of what kinds of communications should be off-limits.”

And they should have a clear idea of who is allowed to IM whom. Companies may want to restrict certain employees from IMing customers, suppliers, news media and people who do not work for the company. A company may also want to establish hours during which IMing is allowed, and it may want to restrict IM interactions to the workplace.

“Managers should understand that one in four of their employees is using instant messaging today, whether they know it or not,” said Christopher Dean, senior vice president of marketing and business development at FaceTime. “If you’re not managing it, you are leaving the company open to a range of risks. We say, don’t ignore it, don’t block it -- embrace it and plan for it. If you do, you can get everyone using IM and actually benefit from it.”

Dean is a true believer when it comes to IM. He confessed that, during the interview for this story, a colleague was IMing him on his cell phone with additional talking points.

“The first time the light bulb went off in my head that this was serious business technology was when I was negotiating a deal with AOL,” Dean said, “We were sitting across a conference table from eight AOL [executives]. Throughout the negotiation, they were IMing each other right there in front of us. I either had to pull my guys out of the room or whisper in their ears.”

Instant messaging made its way into the enterprise through the back door. In 1996, Mirabilis marketed what may have been the first instant messaging product, an IM client called ICQ (pronounced “I seek you”), to consumers. AOL acquired Mirabilis in 1998; however, the company is still in operation and ICQ is still in use with a loyal customer following.

Today, the most widely used IM services are AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. All three of these publicly available IM services run on their own proprietary networks and protocols.

In a report published in February by Osterman Research (Instant Messaging: Enterprise Market Needs and Trends), market analysts found that public instant messaging products continue to be the most widely used IM products on corporate networks. The Osterman survey found, for example, that AOL’s Instant Messenger was used at 64% of the companies surveyed.

But the public IM packages are infamous as vehicles for introducing malicious software to enterprise networks, and another Osterman study found that approximately 27% of corporations have chosen to block commercial instant-messaging access at work altogether.

Both AOL and Yahoo recently unveiled enterprise versions of their IM services, and Microsoft promises to launch its own enterprise-ready IM service later this year (read the realted story “Big three stake a claim in the corporate IM space”).

Despite its potential for improving productivity, and the wealth of tools now available for managing it, IM carries a stigma associated with its birth as a consumer-oriented technology. The thought of school kids IMing each other on multicolored cell phones has left many skeptical of IM’s usefulness in business.

But skeptics should keep in mind that instant messaging is not the only consumer-targeted technology to find its way into the enterprise through the back door. The PC, Web and e-mail were all adopted first by consumers, who pushed them into the enterprise, where they became basic business technologies. Currently, PDAs are giving IT managers fits as more and more employees bring their wireless Palms, Clies and iPAQs to work and sign them onto the company network. The advent of all of these technologies has prompted IT to establish best practices and best-use policies for them. Clearly, IM is poised to join these technologies as a mainstream business tool.

Read the related story “Big three stake a claim in the corporate IM space” by John K. Waters


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