Microsoft Corp.s Office Live Communications Server 2003 delivers only the basics of instant messaging for sites that havent upgraded to the companys latest and greatest, giving IM competitors the edge for all but the most aggressively upgraded Microsoft shops.
Fully leveraging Live Communications Server requires that sites run Windows Server 2003 and Windows 2000 or later on the client side, not to mention Office 2003. Sites will also have to buy a third-party management application to maximize the ability to manage the product.
Live Communications Server costs less than some competing products, with a list price of $34.95 per user. Considering the "tangential" costs, however, its volume pricing of $25 per user and $733 per server still looks expensive.
The Microsoft platform also doesnt provide Web conferencing, an application that delivers productivity gains when used hand in hand with IM. IBM Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing (formerly Sametime) does provide Web conferencing and costs a relatively cheap $48 per user, given the broader client and server options. IM services can also be less expensive: Yahoo Inc.s Business Messenger service, for example, costs $30 per user per year, without any of the client or server upgrade costs.
Office Live Communications Server
Microsofts third try at real-time collaboration works well for companies that have invested (or plan to invest) heavily in Microsoft technologies, including Office 2003 and Windows Server 2003. The price point for the Microsoft platform—$34.95 per user and $949 per server—is less than that for IBM Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing, but you get what you pay for. Companies will also have to consider investing in an IM management tool because management features are lacking in Live Communications Server.
EVALUATION SHORT LIST
In eWEEK Labs tests, Live Communications Server and the required Messenger 5.0 client performed the IM basics, including sending messages and sharing data. Live Communications Server does have some slick features, including good integration with Microsoft Outlook 2003. However, in addition to lacking the Web conferencing features found in more mature systems, the product has a number of usability issues that confounded us during tests.
Live Communications Server supports SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and SIMPLE (SIP Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions). In theory, this should allow any client that communicates through SIP and SIMPLE to connect with the server, send instant messages and allow presence information about that client to propagate throughout the enterprise. However, in practice, Live Communications Server requires the Windows Messenger 5.0 client.
The Messenger client does a good job of tapping into the culture of consumer IM, with "emoticon" and rich-text support. However, the interface becomes cluttered as it moves beyond IM and into application sharing and whiteboards. In fact, the most confusing part of the product is due to Messengers lack of a stop button for those features—we had to stop them by closing an expanding list.
From a management perspective, Live Communications Server uses Active Directory to manage users. However, centralized management through ActiveDirectorys user management tool is limited to managing a users ability to block or allow IM from other users. We needed to use the Group Policy Editor and create groups to globally manage features such as the ability to use video and audio conferencing or transfer files. Some of these capabilities are available through third-party or Microsoft tools, but many competing IM products and services have them built in.
The Microsoft Messenger client supports three communications stacks: The Microsoft Network, the previous-generation Exchange Instant Messenger server and Live Communications Server. We would have liked to see a granular way to control user access to these stacks at the directory management level, as well as a way to manage the Messenger clients server connection information remotely.
Live Communications Server can archive instant messages on the fly when used with Microsofts SQL Server 2000 and the Microsoft Message Queuing service. But, again, third parties do it better. FaceTime Communications Inc.s IM Guardian and IMlogic Inc.s IM Manager, for example, provide more robust tools for searching archives and managing regulatory compliance. These management products also allow companies to use Live Communications Server to communicate with Microsofts IM provisioning service, MSN Messenger Connect for Enterprises.
From a development perspective, Live Communications Server is extensible on three levels: presence, the client API and server-based communications. Live Communications Server also can be extended with interactive applications that communicate with other applications in a client-to-client or client-to-server scenario via the RealTime Communications client API.
Technical Analyst Michael Caton can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.