Enterprise Collaboration Tools

With Web-based collaborative workspaces, users separated by offices or miles can accomplish any project. We tested eight product suites, but only one set the standard for features, interoperability and price.

December 3, 2004

16 Min Read
Network Computing logo

Collaboration servers devour CPU and RAM resources. Each system we tested requires a dual-processing Intel PIII or a single Intel P4 environment with at least 1 GB of RAM. Web collaboration doesn't assume client processing power, so servers bear the burden of supporting client activities. The servers authenticate users, enforce security profiles, serve and render documents in HTML, process e-mail and create and search indexes.Some platforms, like Entopia Quantum and SiteScape Forum, edit documents online from within browsers. This takes even more horsepower. Most products stream documents to users through the browser and let the browser handle them according to MIME type. It's also possible to edit documents online through WebDAV (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning). Either way, using a local client to view and edit documents in their native format off-loads processing from the server. But server processes still keep resources busy.

The systems tested require user training. Quantum, Hummingbird Enterprise Collaboration, Microsoft SharePoint Services and Forum are easy to navigate. Interwoven Worksite MP, Open Text Livelink, Stellent Universal Content Manager and Vignette Business Collaboration Server (VBCS) are more complex.

All the vendors had a difficult time calling a duck a duck. VBCS refers to its system as Group Memory and to workspaces as communities. Hummingbird also uses communities. Interwoven works with realms and facilities, while Entopia builds a Q-File. Once we got a handle on the vocabulary, we saw that each vendor provides check-in/checkout features with versioning control. And all but Microsoft include a tool for workflow.

These systems won't be favorites among your administrators. Although each vendor provides tools to monitor, stop and start processes with standard reports and enhanced logging facilities, none but Microsoft offers a utility to check the growth of workspaces. SharePoint uses SQL Server for document content, server settings and metadata. Plan on running a server-side antivirus utility--no vendor addresses viruses and malicious code.

Collaborative Workspace FeaturesClick to Enlarge

All the products use e-mail to notify users of changed workspaces. And most--exceptions are Hummingbird's and Microsoft's--process e-mail destined for workspaces. None ignore the value of directory services to create, authenticate and assign roles to users. But each has idiosyncrasies. Hummingbird and Stellent can authenticate users with NTLM (NT LAN Manager) and an LDAP-enabled directory. Open Text also can use NTLM or an LDAP-enabled directory for authentication, but its support is limited to a Sun ONE Directory. Otherwise, it can import and synchronize users with Active Directory or an Exchange 5.5 directory. Interwoven, SiteScape and Vignette import and synchronize users with an LDAP-enabled directory. SiteScape also can use NTLM authentication if the server is running on Windows.Our Editor's Choice winner is one of the easiest products to use and provides feature-rich collaborative workspaces at a competitive price. Forum is intuitive for both users and administrators and supports multiple platforms and databases to fit any enterprise architecture. It includes IM as well as an internal messaging component. And if you don't have the resources to deploy it, Forum is available as a service (licensed on a per-user basis).

Like Microsoft SharePoint, Forum offers wizards to help users create document folders, workspaces and discussion lists. After selecting a workspace name and a directory name to access the document directory through the Web, we selected users or groups to access the space. Then we chose resources, such as discussion forums, calendars, contacts and a chat room, to add to the workspace.

Chat-room dialogue can be saved as a transcript and attached to the workspace or downloaded to the local machine. Like Hummingbird Enterprise Collaboration, Forum includes an internal IM utility. It can be used for messaging and presence as long as a user enables a "listener" function to send and receive messages.

To import documents into the system, just select them from a local or shared file system; in contrast, Stellent's and Vignette's products use a bulk import utility. Once our documents were uploaded, we could view them with an HTML viewer and edit them online. Once a workspace starts filling with documents and discussions, the included search engine is necessary.

With Forum's basic search form, we found content by author and keyword and were able to limit the search by date and content type, such as workspace or individual discussion list. Forum searches aren't as advanced as the search forms and agents provided by Stellent or Vignette, but you can save and reuse search queries.

We easily developed a workflow process to review documents. Like Stellent's tool, Forum provides a good trade-off between usability and functionality. The first time you create a workflow, Forum installs or updates Adobe SVG Viewer on the desktop. After that, you use a graphical tool to create a workflow with stages and triggers to transition from one stage to the next.

Workspaces in Forum can receive e-mail. However, to implement this feature we had to set up POP3 mailboxes on our Exchange 2003 Server.

SiteScape Forum 7.1. SiteScape, (978) 461-9959. www.sitescape.com

VBCS also provides full featured workspaces at a good price. But it didn't beat Forum's price and ease of use. The product's tight integration with e-mail and LDAP and support for WebDAV make it an easy fit in any enterprise. However, VBCS is difficult to learn.VBCS's universe is dubbed Group Memory. Users collaborate in shared communities or workspaces that make the best use of e-mail of any product in our roundup. VBCS uses e-mail for notifications, but also lets groups, folders and discussion lists receive e-mail and process attachments as documents. There's no need to set up mailboxes on your default mail server--VBCS includes a mailer.

We created communities easily using built-in templates with default feature sets. The templates weren't as extensive as Forum's, but they included account, content, project, topic and custom community spaces. The names are indicative of their functions--an account community space is designed with contacts and lists to manage accounts. We focused on content communities to manage documents and contents. A wizard guided the way.

After adding a title and description to the community, we designated it "public" so all users could access and read content. A "private" designation required populating an ACL (access control list) with users, groups or roles to access it. Then we fixed a group e-mail address for the community and imported documents through the Web interface in singular fashion.

Like the products from Microsoft, Open Text and Stellent, VBCS supports WebDAV. With it, users can create, manage and edit documents online. VBCS also allows FTP access to any resources in Group Memory. Although VBCS doesn't include a graphical interface to configure workflow tasks, the process is painless and easy to set up.

The wizard also provides a window to designate users as approvers using a fully automated approval-routing feature that lets you list users in order of approval hierarchy. Sweet. Finally, the wizard launched a "mail to" form, sending the workspace's URL to invite participants. Otherwise, we could have subscribed users to the workspace.Although the entire process of creating a workspace and setting up workflow was easy, navigating the system took time and end users will need training.

Vignette Business Collaboration Server 5.6.3. Vignette Corp., (888) 608-9900, (512) 741-4300. www.vignette.com

Hummingbird was not far behind our leaders, but its high price kept it from the top. It has excellent documenting features, including checkout/in, workflow and versioning, and comes with a portal for easy navigation.

HEC is a Web application that works on top of Hummingbird's Core Services (J2EE environment) and works with Hummingbird's Vorlon Web server. It can run as a standalone application or in a cluster of servers supporting Hummingbird Core Services. Collaboration is the main application; ConfigCollaboration is a servlet used to configure it. HEC supports multiple relational databases to manage metadata and uses local and network file stores for documents and data.

HEC organizes communities or workspaces within organizations. We created an organization to match the server under test and then created roles, groups and users. When we logged into the portal for the first time, a wizard helped us set user-interface defaults and enable system features, including IM. After the desktop installation, we warmed right up to the Jabber technology. It provided a secure SSL connection to the server and presence management. HEC also comes with an internal messaging service to send and receive messages and notifications within the system. However, it doesn't provide a utility for sending external e-mail to workspaces.Creating a workspace for a project was not as easy as it was with SiteScape Forum or VCBS. Without the guiding influence of a default template or wizard, we had to add features for workspaces, such as document folders and discussion lists, on our own. Once we put together a workspace, we could save it as a template for future use.

HEC comes with two templates for using a workflow--one for reviewing a document or white paper and another for submitting an expense report.

Hummingbird Enterprise Collaboration 5.2. Hummingbird, (877) FLY-HUMM, (416) 496-2200. www.hummingbird.com

Stellent provides a mature and feature-rich document management engine. However, the product comes up short on workspace functionality and customization and isn't as easy to use as SiteScape's. It does offer the best tools for managing collaboration from a Web browser, though, and its support for multiple OSs and databases helps it integrate with nearly any enterprise.

Like with Hummingbird's product, Stellent's main interface is a portal page from which users search content, contributors add content and administrators manage the application. To enable Active Directory or NTLM external authentication, we navigated through a rich set of server-configuration tools that employ Java applets. In the Internet configuration, we checked a radio button to enable NTLM external authentication. Then another login button appeared on the home page labeled "Microsoft Login." In effect, we could use the local database or NTLM for authentication. It would be better, though, if the system arbitrated the login based on the user name so users don't have optional login paths.Content Manager provides a number of products for collaboration: Collaboration Manager, threaded discussions and ad hoc workflows. The last lets project members set up temporary approval-routing for documents.

Creating a project or workspace isn't difficult. We clicked on "Browse Content" from the portal interface and navigated to "New Project." There we were presented with a form to "Add Collaboration Project." After filling in the project name, description and users, we set notification options and were ready to work.

Stellent includes three types of workflow tools: basic, criteria and sub-workflows. Criteria workflows are triggered by an event, such as "check-in." A sub-workflow divides large, complex workflows into manageable bites.

Universal Content Management 7.1.1. Stellent, (800) 989-8774, (952) 903-2000. www.stellent.com

With Interwoven's acquisition and integration of iManage collaboration resources, its WorkSite MP provides a mature platform with a polished document-management engine. WorkSite MP includes a unique records-retention module, but configuring services for users takes too long and the result isn't as easy to use as Forum. And like Hummingbird's, Interwoven's product is expensive.For collaboration, WorkSite MP uses a "cluster" of multiple services that are easily distributed in client-server environments. Among the services are a content-management server (CMS), an indexer, a Java Apache Mail Enterprise Server (JAMES), a notification engine and a library.

Unlike the other products we tested, WorkSite MP doesn't let you configure and manage services through a Web browser. Server management is limited to Java applications running on the server. We used the application's process manager to manage and configure WorkSite MP and start and stop services. A library manager joins services and data stored in libraries; we set up users and groups and organized them in "realms."

We used a wizard to create workspaces and set user access privileges. WorkSite MP comes with several templates to construct a workplace. Once the wizard was done, we added content and started collaborating.

Before starting a workflow process, you must download and install a template designer--there are no default workflow templates. Once we created a default workflow template, we imported it to the server. This wasn't difficult, but default templates would have been better.

Interwoven WorkSite MP 4.0. Interwoven, (888) 468-3796, (408) 774-2000. www.interwoven.comMicrosoft's product has the most user-friendly interface of the products we tested. It's clean and configurable, but it falls short on document collaboration and workspace features. WSS supports only a Windows 2003 Server environment, but if you have that, it's available as a free download.

WSS makes it easy to manage a default team Web site and create other sites by department or function. We created a number of sites for our editorial departments--such as Sneak Previews and Workshops. With one click, a wizard gave us options for creating new sites. After adding a title and description, we identified a URL for a Web folder to access content. WSS supports WebDAV to synchronize content offline, like the products from Open Text, Stellent and Vignette do. We selected a site from a number of templates designed for team collaboration, meetings and decisions.

WSS doesn't include workflow functionality; you'll need a third-party tool or a custom solution. Also, WSS cannot process e-mail for workspaces.

Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services 2.0. Microsoft Corp., (800) 426-9400, (425) 882-8080. www.microsoft.com

Livelink comes up short on features and functionality, but it does provide workspace functionality and an easy-to-use workflow at a moderate price. Like Vignette's product, it requires a great deal of user training.Livelink comprises two servers--the Livelink Server and the Livelink Admin server. The former orchestrates all functionality and serves client requests through an HTTP server; the latter handles data flow, including indexing and converting documents to HTML. Once we installed the base modules, we set up other modules to add features and functionality, such as rendering documents in HTML, workflow and calendaring.

The standard user interface defaults to an "Enterprise" workspace, a central repository used to store projects or workspaces. From there, a wizard helped us create new projects and include familiar resources, such as discussion lists and shared tasks. But, like Hummingbird's product, Livelink lacks default templates.

Workflows are set up in an easy-to-use graphical environment. We defined a set of linked steps to represent a work process and attached documents and comments. Then we assigned each step to particular users, roles or groups.

Open Text Livelink for Collaboration 9.2.0. Open Text, Corp., (800) 499-6544, (510) 888-7111. www.opentext.com

Entopia Quantum falls short on workspace features and functionality but offers a respectable set of document collaboration features at a low price. Its simple interface includes an integrated toolbar for Internet Explorer for importing Web pages into workspaces.While installing Quantum, we had to specify a default SMTP server and DNS server information. If this information changed, we would have had to update it in the Oracle database.

We easily pulled information into Quantum from the Web and from local and shared file systems. Its graphical interface is user-friendly, but you must upload documents one at a time. Once a document is imported into the system, it becomes a Q-File (Quantum File) that can be managed as a document, checked in and out, and searched by keyword. It also gets configurable metadata.

Quantum 1.6.1. Entopia, (866) ENTOPIA, (650) 632-0101. www.entopia.com

Sean Doherty is a technology editor and lawyer based at our Syracuse University Real-World Labs®. A former project manager and IT engineer at Syracuse University, he helped develop centrally supported applications and storage systems. Write to him at [email protected].

Collaboration is a vital part of all corporate structures, but it can be difficult if project co-workers are located across the building or across the globe. By using enterprise collaboration tools, users can share workspaces without sharing physical space.We tested Web-based collaboration tools from Entopia, Hummingbird, Interwoven, Microsoft, Open Text, SiteScape, Stellent and Vignette. All were mighty contenders, but several rose to the top with intuitive functionality. Our Editor's Choice, SiteScape's Forum, offers the best of features, ease of use, internal messaging components and a price that can't be beat.

Our tests focused on the features and functionality of the workspace platforms. Each includes multiple services that can be installed in a client-server environment. Some, like Interwoven WorkSite MP, make it easy to work in a server cluster. We weren't worried about giving each vendor equal resources, but we gave each the best possible home.

We tested almost all of the workspace platforms in our Syracuse University Real-World Labs® on dual processing PIII (1400 MHz) processors with 1024 MB of RAM running Windows 2000 Server (SP4). Entopia was not happy with only 1 GB of RAM, so they sent us a Dell Dimension 4600i (P4 2800 MHz) with 2048 MB of RAM running Windows 2000 Server (SP4). SiteScape sent us a CD-ROM with software for both Windows and Unix. Since it did not have a platform preference, our Sun Microsystems Sunfire 280R was breathing easy and looking for some action, so we put it there.

Entopia Quantum and SiteScape Forum included databases, Oracle version 9.2 and Frontbase, respectively. We gave the remaining vendors access to a local or remote Microsoft SQL Server 2000. Each also had access to an Exchange Server 2003 for SMTP services and Active Directory.

To get a feel for teamwork and collaboration, we set up a number of users to access the systems from multiple workstations. These virtual users helped us analyze each of the systems. In addition, a number of editors provided feedback on system navigation, workspace creation and ease of collaboration. If they found it difficult to work with these systems, end users will require some advanced training.Unlike the other products we tested, Groove's Virtual Office is not a Web product--it installs locally to Windows PCs. It provides a workspace to invite other Groove users, share files, calendars and tasks and engage in discussion lists and real-time chat. It even offers a feature to route a document to selected reviewers. Although it doesn't supply document check-in/out features or versioning control, its synchronous features in IM and presence management make collaborating quite easy. Without them, a virtual workspace is like entering a meeting room in the dark.

The products from Hummingbird and SiteScape also include messaging and IM components. And Open Text's Meeting Zone provides a place for live, online meetings and discussions. Other products like Vignette and Microsoft Sharepoint are looking forward to integration paths with Live Communication Server.

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like

More Insights