Tools Help Make IM Ready for Enterprise

Instant messaging is a powerful communications and collaboration tool, but the medium's many administrative and security problems rightly give IT departments pause about deployment in the enterprise.

Instant messaging is a powerful communications and collaboration tool, but the mediums many administrative and security problems rightly give IT departments pause about deployment in the enterprise. With the appropriate tools and standards, however, IMs benefits can outweigh its drawbacks.

Enterprise IM is still an emerging market, but there are already numerous tools available that purport to make the IM experience easier, safer, more manageable—you name it. Most of the products available now, or coming soon, provide the strong user namespace management, directory integration, end-to-end message encryption, and auditing and reporting capabilities currently lacking in most public IM systems.

In recent months, vendors of consumer-oriented products have announced enterprise IM systems that will allow IT departments to exert greater control over employee IM usage. eWeek Labs believes that these IM solutions will eventually dominate the market, as the vast majority of the companies allowing IM today have users already familiar with public IM clients.

Yahoo Inc. was first out of the gate, in October, with its Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition. And last month, AOL Time Warner and Microsoft Corp. announced, respectively, AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) Enterprise Gateway and MSN Messenger Connect Service. These products are in limited distribution to beta customers; general availability is expected in the first quarter of next year.

AIM Enterprise Gateway acts as a proxy between corporate users within the firewall and public users on AIM networks. AIM Enterprise Gateway provides identity management and private domain service and has auditing and archiving capabilities based on technology from FaceTime Communications Inc.

MSN Messenger Connect Service is similar to AOLs offering. MSN Messenger Connect will use Microsofts SQL Server 2000 database to store, log and audit information. Microsoft also partners with FaceTime, as well as with IMlogic Inc., to provide logging and archiving capabilities to MSN Messenger Connect.

Yahoo Messenger Enterprise Edition features Secure Sockets Layer encrypted messaging, in addition to namespace management and directory integration. The product also works with VeriSign Inc. for user authentication and with FaceTime and IMlogic.

IBM and Microsoft also provide IM offerings that leverage their respective e-mail and directory technologies with proprietary protocols. Sametime, from IBMs Lotus Software division, requires Domino services, while Microsofts Exchange IM requires Exchange 2000 Server and integrates with Active Directory. (See eWeek Labs review of Sametime 3.)

Products such as IM Auditor from FaceTime are HTTP proxies that sit behind the firewall, controlling and tracking all IM traffic that passes through the proxy. These tools enable companies to monitor employee IM usage and track exploitation of sensitive data—without the need to deploy an internal enterprise IM solution.

Startup WiredRed Software Inc. provides a secure server-to-client IM platform with an auditing and reporting server component that is compliant with IM monitoring and archiving regulations. This will be especially important to financial and government institutions. The current WiredRed E/pop enterprise IM solution is designed to work within the corporate firewall (see review).

A standardized IM protocol for client interoperability will also be important, as most enterprises will want an IM platform that works across the board with different IM clients so that they can more effectively communicate with partners or customers using heterogeneous IM clients. Interoperability in todays IM products is limited, but the industry is making headway in developing IM standards that will one day allow, for example, MSN clients to talk to AIM clients.

In September, the Internet Engineering Task Force approved the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) working group to develop technology for enterprise IM. SIP and SIMPLE (SIP for IM and Presence Leveraging Extensions) provide working standards for defining a chat session among IM clients on different servers. SIP and SIMPLE are backed by vendors including Microsoft and IBM. IBMs Lotus Software divisions Sametime and Microsofts MSN Messenger—along with Microsofts next-generation, real-time communication server, code-named Greenwich—support SIP.

The IETF last month also approved the creation of another working group that will develop a competing IM standard: XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol). XMPP is based on Jabber, the open-source XML protocol for IM.

Based on the number of big vendors backing and developing products based on SIP and SIMPLE, the outlook for XMPP is less than bright. However, shortcomings in the security and performance of the SIMPLE protocol have forced developers to rethink the specification.

Technical Analyst Francis Chu can be reached at