IM Genie Out of the Bottle

Instant messaging enters enterprise.

When the tamale seller sets up his cart on the sidewalk in front of Pacific International Marketing Inc., MIS Director Bryan Searcy—and most employees at the Salinas, Calif., produce broker—usually gets an instant message about it from somebody in the office. And thats OK. Yes, it would be nice if employees used all company-supplied technology for business purposes only. But, at Pacific International, where there is no policy pertaining to instant messaging use for nonbusiness purposes, moderate frivolity is tolerated. Besides, who doesnt like a good tamale?

Compare that with the attitude toward IM at Thomas Weisel Partners LLC, in San Francisco: Until the merchant bank completes tests on its deployment of FaceTime Communications Inc.s IM Auditor software server to determine if it will meet the Securities and Exchange Commission guidelines for the handling of communications, there will be no instant messages about anything, whether the content pertains to tamales or U.S. Treasury notes. "Planned implementation is Dec. 1. In the meantime, all IM communications are suspended or blocked," CIO Robert Hahn said.

While enterprise attitudes toward IM vary, most IT managers are being forced to face up to a simple fact: IM, a technology that started as a consumer toy, has not only worked its way into common use in most companies but is also increasingly being used for serious business communications. As a result, like it or not, IT managers need to get serious about taming IM. That means creating and enforcing rules about how IM is to be used and for what purposes. It also means making IM more secure and trackable than current, consumer-oriented services such as AOL Time Warner Inc.s Instant Messenger or Microsoft Corp.s MSN Messenger. For an increasing number of companies, that will involve deploying a new class of IM products specifically targeting enterprise users.

One things for sure, though: IM has has gotten out of the bottle, its moved into the enterprise and it shows no sign of leaving. Gartner Inc. predicts that the casual downloading by corporate users of free IM clients from the likes of AOL, MSN and Yahoo Inc. is set to saturate 70 percent of enterprises with the technology by 2003—in most cases without the blessing or support of enterprise IT. At the same time, the amount of time employees spend sending instant messages is growing like crabgrass. New York-based Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. recently found that the total minutes U.S. workers spent using IM applications from AOL, MSN and Yahoo increased 110 percent over the past year, from 2.3 billion minutes in September last year to 4.9 billion in September this year.

How much harm is there in IM usage in the enterprise? Potentially, theres plenty, and it goes way beyond employees frittering away time IMing for nonbusiness purposes. No, the biggest concerns revolve around consumer IMs lack of the kind of security usually demanded by enterprise users and its inability to provide archives and indexes of messages. Thats particularly important in industries where business is done electronically. In fact, in industries such as financial services, telecommunications, health care and energy, agencies such as the SEC have already begun to alert companies that they need to retain, archive and index instant message transcripts in much the same manner that they manage electronic communications such as e-mail.

That kind of scrutiny is causing enterprises such as Thomas Weisel to ban IM use, at least for now. And IT managers in other industries, too, are taking a harder look at the limitations of consumer IM, demanding features such as audit trails.

Thats also why some companies are turning to IM products tailored for enterprise users from vendors such as Ikimbo Inc., WiredRed Software Corp., NetLert Communications Inc., FaceTime and Lotus Development Corp. Such products solve some of consumer IMs security problems by moving the IM server inside the enterprise firewall and keeping IM messages off the public Internet. Most add encryption. Some also add administrative features such as the archiving and indexing of messages.