Instant messaging has a long way to go before it becomes a business tool thats as effective and pervasive as e-mail. However, federation, and the products that support it, are opening up IM for broader interoperability.
To test how easy it is to join—or federate—two IM networks, eWEEK Labs recently tested three enterprise IM platforms: Antepo Inc.s OPN (Open Presence Network) System XT, IBMs Lotus Sametime and Microsoft Corp.s LCS (Live Communications Server).
We found that considerable work still needs to be done before IM can interoperate and scale the way e-mail does. However, the technology is in place to create federated networks that use the same systems and to tap into public networks. And for companies that dont want to build federated IM networks, there are alternatives that enable IM-based collaborative environments without connecting separate IM systems.
There are two fundamental problems with federation today: the lack of compatibility among systems and the complex administrative processes for creating trusted relationships between separate networks.
In tests, we found we could work around the lack of compatibility by using gateways and connectors—but those connectors will bridge only so many gaps. For example, both IBMs Lotus Sametime and Microsofts LCS are based on the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) standard, but each product uses a different subset of the protocol, so they cannot connect natively.
In contrast, Antepos OPN System XT and Jabber Inc.s Jabber Extensible Communications Platform use XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) and can be connected to Sametime and LCS by establishing a trusted relationship.
Both Antepo and Jabber do have SIP components: Antepo natively supports SIP, while Jabber has a SIP gateway, allowing both of their products to connect to a Sametime- or an LCS-based network.
In tests, we easily connected an OPN System XT IM environment to a Microsoft LCS 2005 platform located on a separate domain. The task of federating to other networks can be complex, however, because of security requirements for established trusted relationships using TLS (Transport Layer Security) and because of the need to create and manage a server that handles connections with another network or networks. Antepo, Jabber and Microsoft all support TLS as a mechanism for managing trusted and encrypted communications at both the gateway and client level.
There was a significant amount of complexity involved in testing. For example, to test LCS, we had to set up five servers just to create a basic network environment that would support federation. Establishing an internally facing LCS environment required a Windows Server 2003-based domain controller, an LCS server used to host internal communications and a SQL Server back end to manage the message store.
In addition, we had to install an LCS director server to manage communications between the main LCS server and the final LCS component, the LCS access proxy, which communicates with the external network. We also needed to create a certificate authority for managing the certificates used in establishing the TLS connections.
Finally, administrators must create what are essentially whitelists of trusted domains to establish connections to those domains. Although this isnt difficult for companies with small numbers of domains, federating with hundreds of partners would be a complex task.
In addition to federating with corporate IM networks, the servers from Antepo, Jabber and Microsoft can federate with public networks such as America Online Inc.s AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) through dedicated gateways, enabling companies to control the internal communications environment while allowing connectivity to a broad range of business users who rely on public networks.
Federation isnt the only way to connect with business partners and customers using IM, however. Companies that have embraced IM internally also have the option of extending that investment to securely communicate with partners via persistent chat technology.
OPN System XT and JabberNow include features that let companies build externally facing chat environments that allow multiple participants in an IM-based forum. Lotus Sametime and LCS can be extended to provide a similar capability through third-party applications—Instant Technologies Instant TeamSessions extends Lotus Sametime, and Parlano Inc.s MindAlign does so for LCS.