IBM's Project Vulcan Is Google Wave Meets Facebook Meets BI

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-01-19

IBM's Project Vulcan Is Google Wave Meets Facebook Meets BI

ORLANDO, Fla.-There's been a lot of discussion about IBM's Project Vulcan, the next-generation collaboration platform the company demonstrated here at Lotusphere Jan. 18.

How does one describe Project Vulcan? Yes, it looked like Facebook and business intelligence rolled into one. Some initially speculated that Vulcan is IBM's answer to Google Wave. 

But it became apparent that the nascent platform aims to let users share and take action on data from business applications rather than just being another collaboration application that allows real-time co-editing of documents and files. And Vulcan seeks to do this from one platform.

Consider IBM's Lotus portfolio. From the Lotus Notes e-mail client and Domino server to Lotus Sametime products for instant messaging and Web conferencing, there are a lot of different moving parts. IBM cross-integrates its products, allowing them to talk to one another.

But there is still really no one way to access these disparate applications from one palette, which is what Google did with Wave. Project Vulcan aims to do that, plus bring business data into the mix, Alistair Rennie, the new general manager for IBM's Lotus software group, told eWEEK in an interview Jan. 19.

Vulcan, which IBM will open to developers through the company's new LotusLive Labs in the second half of 2010, is still evolving. Rennie called it a "blueprint" and said he can only be so specific.

With that disclaimer, Rennie said the customer's goal is to have a more effective way to get to collaborative services and have those services intersect nicely with business capability.

So customers want to be able to take the data they create in business applications such as CRM, ERP and business analytics software such as IBM's Cognos, and share and communicate via IBM's Lotus Notes and Domino e-mail, Lotus Connections social software, Lotus Sametime unified communication and collaboration applications, and Lotus Quickr team content services.

Another goal of Vulcan is to enable these applications to communicate with one another whether they are on-premises-based or Web-based applications, which encompasses IBM's increasing hybridization of Lotus (for example, getting on-premises Lotus Notes to work seamlessly with LotusLive Notes' cloud).

Finally, he said, IBM wants to be able to extend all of the Vulcan capabilities from the desktop to its mobile enterprise offerings, where location-based services will play a huge role in helping users connect.

"The goal is to bring those things together into an integrated framework that provides a unified way for a person to interact and see things in context," Rennie said. "From a services perspective, it would include mail, unified communications, social capabilities and business applications."

Project Vulcan includes IBM's Lotus collaboration software, Lotus Connections and Cognos BI software. Think of Connections as the glue tying the collaboration applications and Cognos applications together, forming a one-two social analytics punch on top of the broader Lotus collaboration services.

Vulcan Demonstrated as Next-Gen Collaboration Platform

I went through a demo with Charles Hill, IBM distinguished engineer and CTO of IBM Lotus. Hill showed me how to preview a file from the LotusLive SAAS (software as a service) platform, where we could see comments generated in Lotus Connections and act on them.

The Vulcan homepage included updates from the Notes collaboration environment as well as status updates from Connections. People were easily findable through Vulcan's social search capability. Users can find a user profile and click a button to trigger a Sametime chat session and share files via Sametime with one click.

The Vulcan Notes calendar was functional. Files were easily shared across the platform, and Hill was able to switch from the on-premises version of the client to the Web-based version with single-click ease.

After clicking on an alert, Hill was whisked to a mashup of Cognos BI charts with social information from Connections.

"The idea is to blend together business process capabilities with an understanding of what people are doing day-to-day as they collaborate with each other," Hill said.

First impression: This is a complex, daunting dance, but one that could prove quite valuable for IBM and its customers if IBM pulls it off. Currently, no vendor is offering anything like this.

Part of the reason is that most companies don't have their own suites of collaboration, social and BI applications to stitch together. This task is already Herculean. Imagine trying to do it with sites from different companies. It can be done, but would take years and would be extremely fragile.

That is what makes Vulcan potentially very special. Is it fair to compare Vulcan to Facebook? Yes and no.

From the demo, the interface certainly looked a bit like Facebook, but remember IBM is building Vulcan for enterprises, so there are all sorts of permissions and underlying security parts moving underneath. Vulcan is far more private than public, for obvious reasons.

How is Vulcan like Google Wave? Other than the fact that it aims to combine collaboration and communication applications in one standard platform, it's not ... yet, anyway.

Rennie told me IBM is working on something called Project Concord, which is a Web-based version of the Lotus Symphony word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software. This will include real-time co-editing of documents, which is where the comparisons to Wave come into play.

Vulcan will approximate some of the real-time ethos of Google Wave. However, Wave doesn't have a strong social component and business analytics is nowhere to be found in Google's broad collaboration portfolio, so the similarities between Vulcan and Wave end at the real-time collaboration Vulcan will have.

Again, though, Concord is not ready for inclusion in Vulcan any more than Vulcan is ready to come to production. Don't expect to see any production deployments of Vulcan until 2011.

One other interesting note: IBM's opening guest speaker was none other than William Shatner, he of "Star Trek" and fame. Rennie then closed the show with the announcement of Project Vulcan. No IBM official will comment on the obvious irony.

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