Tuning In to IM

Enterprise-friendly applications are beginning to transform instant messaging from perceived security threat to key communication tool.

At brokerage Terra Nova Trading L.L.C., its now official: Instant messaging, once banned as a threat to security and productivity, has not only been blessed by IT, it is becoming as critical to communications as e-mail.

Sure, brokers still scream orders at one another the old-fashioned way. But under the din, traders, customer service agents and sales staff now instant-message one another, letting colleagues know when an important customer is on hold or a server goes down.

What precipitated the change of heart at Terra Nova? The availability of an enterprise-class IM platform from WiredRed Software Corp. that, unlike widely used consumer-oriented services, provides security and manageability to satisfy not only IT but also the Securities and Exchange Commission, said Kevin Ott, vice president of technology at Terra Nova, in Chicago.

"The speed at which we can transmit the information thats moving through here is very important because seconds make a difference in trading," Ott said. "It gets really loud on the trading floor, and e-mails get lost. Using a nonconsumer platform allowed us to manage IM our way."

While corporate attitudes toward IM continue to vary, growing numbers of enterprises—even in security-conscious industries such as financial services—are beginning to embrace IM platforms designed for enterprise deployment. Earlier this year, seven large financial services companies started the Financial Services Instant Messaging Association to push IM providers to adopt interoperability standards.

IT managers who are deploying enterprise IM admit that issues such as interoperability among enterprise IM platforms have yet to be ironed out. And even IM converts such as Ott say the jurys still out on whether IM increases productivity. Still, they say, theres one compelling argument for deploying enterprise IM products: Theyre much more secure and manageable than their consumer-oriented counterparts, which, like it or not, employees will use if not given an alternative.

According to a recent survey by IT research company Osterman Research Inc., of Black Diamond, Wash., consumer IM platforms, which open ports in firewalls that could introduce viruses and other security risks to a corporate network, are being widely used either officially or unofficially in organizations. The research company also found that 42 percent of enterprises use IM for business applications.

"The majority of IM [use] is unofficial and on consumer platforms," said Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research. "While thats OK for communications between friends, it does not suffice in the enterprise. Security, auditing and logging functions, as well as directory integration are the three things organizations serious about IM need in an enterprise-grade platform."

Enterprise-class IM offerings typically differ from their consumer- oriented counterparts with the addition of services that allow IT administrators to manage IM accounts. These products enable logging of messages and scanning of content as well as user authentication and management. Encryption using Secure Sockets Layer is also standard in most enterprise IM products. (For a technical analysis on these capabilities, see Tools Help Make IM Ready for Enterprise.)

In addition to those standard features, some enterprise IM products will authenticate users by tapping into the corporate directory, thereby enforcing company-standard naming conventions. And some enterprise IM vendors have committed to supporting standards needed for interoperability among IM platforms.