Instant Messaging in the Enterprise

More IM technology is enterprise-ready, but security and other issues still loom large.

The enterprise potential for instant messaging is certainly building as more products and services become available. However, security and interoperability issues, as well as development requirements, are still high barriers to building intercompany IM solutions.

Presence awareness is one of the more significant developments of the past year. Presence awareness gives companies running enterprise IM systems a way to provide users with instant access to other IM users via links in applications and documents.

By enabling presence throughout an enterprise and using it as a technology in extranets to engage with customers and business partners, corporations can overcome the interoperability hurdles associated with consumer-oriented IM applications and services. For example, Microsoft Corp.s new IM server, Office Live Communications Server 2003 (see review), uses Office 2003 and SharePoint services to tightly couple productivity applications and documents with the servers presence capability.

Extending IM and presence throughout the enterprise to applications such as portals or CRM (customer relationship management) applications will require some programming expertise for most companies. Enterprise IM applications can be customized to gather relevant corporate information for users in the same way consumer products provide access to news feeds, weather information and stock quotes. For example, an IM client could be used to query a CRM application to determine a customers order status.

Microsofts Live Communications Server and IBMs Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing use Session Initiation Protocol and SIP Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions to provide connectivity between the client and the server. Adoption of this standard has been slow, with only Microsoft and IBM supporting it. The three major IM service providers—America Online Inc., MSN and Yahoo Inc.—continue to use proprietary protocols.

Right now, the most efficient way to deliver true interoperability is through third-party management applications, such as FaceTime Communications Inc.s IM Director or IMlogic Inc.s IM Manager.

These products provide gateways to the individual services. And because they also help to monitor and rein in public network IM usage across private networks, they are smart investments for any company.

These applications are doing an increasingly better job of making the identity of the user appear to be a corporate identity, despite the fact that the user communicates via a consumer service. With the MSN and Yahoo enterprise-oriented services, Microsoft and Yahoo, respectively, provision identities for the user based on his or her organizations domain name.

With their consumer services roots, these business messaging services can exploit the consumer networks to help users who might need to communicate from outside the corporate firewall. Companies can link corporate identities with consumer identities so that whether a user is home or traveling, he or she can connect via the consumer client. But to the recipient, the instant message appears to have come from a corporate user.

Although the consumer and enterprise client experiences can be considerably different, the ability to use either based on the circumstances should spur usage for corporations.

Security should still be a concern for any company using IM, and the third-party tools that manage IM are the gatekeepers for protecting corporate assets. These are really the only way to simultaneously manage both corporate IM and consumer IM, preventing viruses from coming in and sensitive or legally actionable information from going out.

Keeping up with the changing IM world will be particularly difficult for IT managers as software and methods change. With Web-based clients appearing as alternatives to standard consumer IM clients, companies need to be aware that IM traffic may be flowing even when users may not have the rights to install software on their desktops. Products such as FaceTimes IM Guardian (see review) provide a way to monitor for such traffic.