IM Grows Up

We tested seven products that deliver instant messaging you can control, with security and handy collaboration features.

June 24, 2003

20 Min Read
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Of course, everybody and his brother wants to play in this market. We invited more than 35 companies to participate in our review, but our requirements were strict: The product must support a corporate directory, such as Microsoft Active Directory, for authentication; it cannot rely on public or outsourced IM networks to function; and it must be installed and run locally, on the LAN, with no Internet connection necessary. Furthermore, we insisted the application be appropriate for rollout to as many as 5,000 employees.

Not all the organizations invited make full-blown, enterprise-scale IM packages. Some products, such as AIM (AOL Instant Messaging) and Yahoo, rely on public IM networks. If the AIM network or Internet connection goes down, so do you. Furthermore, we didn't want to review just IM clients--hundreds of vendors would have participated--and we chose not to include IM enhancement software.

The Magnificent Seven

Seven vendors whose products met our criteria chose to participate: Gordano, IBM, Ipswitch, Jabber, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and WiredRed Software.

To test the products, we set up chat rooms and contact lists, moderated discussions, shared presentations, scheduled meetings, broadcast announcements and created polls--all in our Syracuse University Real-World Labs®. For our IM server, we used a Dell Computer OptiPlex GXa 600-MHz Pentium 3 machine with 512 MB of RAM. We ran Microsoft Windows 2000 Server SP3 (Service Pack 3) with all products except for Jabber's, which ran with Red Hat Linux 7.1. We set up another OptiPlex, running Windows 2000 Server, as an Active Directory domain. Client machines ran Windows 2000 Pro and Windows XP. All computers were connected with an Extreme Networks Summit48 switch.Each product had at least one feature we wished the other offerings had. For example, only Jabber's Extensible Communications Platform (XCP) informs a user when he or she is being added to someone else's contact list. Jabber's IM product doesn't have polling, but IBM Lotus Instant Messaging does. The IBM product doesn't have news boards, but Sun's ONE Portal Server: Instant Collaboration Pack offers this feature.

Each vendor also takes a different approach to implementing the client software. Most products require a Windows executable or a Java applet, but Sun and WiredRed offer a stripped-down client that requires only JavaScript. Sun's full client is a Web applet, and WiredRed uses a Win32 executable. Gordano's full client also requires JavaScript only. IBM uses the Microsoft Java virtual machine for advanced messaging (such as screen sharing and whiteboard usage). Jabber's product includes a Java-based Web client and a Win32 executable. Only Ipswitch and Microsoft don't offer browser-enabled IM capabilities. Surprisingly, even on meager 600-MHz client machines, the Java Web interfaces performed as speedily as their Win32 counterparts did.

All the products use their own message formats except for Jabber's, which uses XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol), an open standard. Some of the products can speak multiple protocols. For example, we used the IBM Lotus Instant Messaging client to access the IBM server and AIM simultaneously.

Remote users will also need some way to communicate with internal users. A VPN tunnel will let you bypass many firewall issues; otherwise you may need to open a few firewall ports. And you'll want to prevent your employees from reading your CEO's IM. Fortunately, all the products support message encryption.

The server side requires surprisingly little management. The Sun, Gordano, Microsoft and Ipswitch IM components have no management interfaces. The Sun ONE Portal Server lets an administrator log in via IM and assign management rights to other users, but this is done on the client side. Likewise, IBM Lotus Instant Messaging lets users assign the moderator and access controls for their own created chat rooms, but a management interface creates permanent or predefined conferences and viewing log files.In general, the most interesting and useful features are on the client. The biggest control benefit of rolling out your own IM solution, as opposed to using a public network such as AIM, is that the connections, passwords and conversations are not transmitted over the Internet; they all stay in-house.The IM products' functional diversity impressed us. WiredRed's e/pop, IBM Lotus Instant Messaging and Microsoft Exchange 2000 Instant Messaging Service (with XP only) all provide screen sharing and remote control. IBM's and Microsoft's IM tools also offer whiteboards. The IBM product has the best screen-sharing capabilities. We were able to share an entire screen, a single window or even a rectangular region on the screen.

For moderating chat discussions, the Sun ONE Portal Server really shined, letting us control which users in a room have free discussion access and which users' posts must be screened and approved by the moderator.

IBM's, Sun's and WiredRed's products also make outstanding use of the polling and broadcast features. Polls let you quickly gather data that would overflow your e-mail box. The ability to send broadcast messages and alerts is great for administrators who need to inform users of scheduled downtimes, meeting delays, and the arrival of the company VP (or the pizza guy, for that matter).

Prices are all over the board, ranging from $0 to $200,000. The best values are Ipswitch Instant Messenger ($695), Gordano Messaging Suite ($555 for 50 users) and Microsoft Exchange 2000 Instant Messaging Service (free with Exchange 2000). After that, the prices skyrocket. Lotus Instant Messaging and e/pop cost a steep $38 to $40 per seat. Jabber XCP and Sun ONE Portal Server are more moderately priced, at $24 to $25 a seat, but if you're measuring performance for the price, Sun's product offers the best value. Sun ONE Portal Server has almost as many features as Lotus Instant Messaging and e/pop, yet costs $70,000 less for 5,000 users. If you don't need screen-sharing and whiteboard capabilities, IBM's and WiredRed's products lose their major advantages over Sun's offering. However, after using these features, we'd have to be hard-pressed to give up the whiteboard.

When all was said and done, IBM Lotus Instant Messaging (formerly IBM Sametime) garnered our Editor's Choice award because it exhibited the best blend of IM capabilities, access control, user interface and features. But take your needs into consideration when making a choice: Ipswitch is a good bet if you need only some basic IM capabilities. If you need a new e-mail system as well as IM, Gordano Messaging Suite and Microsoft Exchange 2000 Instant Messaging Service can fill that void. Our analysis of the top three products follows; you can find the reviews of the other four IM systems here.Don't run from Lotus Instant Messaging just because it's a $190,000 add-on to a Lotus Domino server. Our Editor's Choice winner has a great interface, superior chat capabilities and the best polling mechanism in the bunch. It also comes with a stripped-down IM-only Domino server. In addition, it doesn't limit users to communicating exclusively with other Lotus IM users. Lotus IM clients can talk with AOL IM users, but you have to download your AIM buddy list yourself. We tested the product with the Domino-provided directory; however, you could use an LDAP-compatible directory as well.Lotus IM's client user interface is very natural and easy to use. IBM eliminated some of the tedium associated with tasks such as setting up a contact list by supporting dynamic groups pulled from the Domino directory. For example, we created a Domino group called "IMTech" and added users to the group; all clients whose contact lists contained the IMTech group were updated automatically. The users in the contact list can also be given custom names by the end users, as opposed to just their user names. Jabber is the only other vendor that offers this feature.

Lotus IM's chat rooms are feature-packed. Creators can password-protect their chat rooms, as well as set up meetings for specified times and durations. Of the products we tested, only Lotus Instant Messaging offers conference-scheduling capabilities. We set up a meeting to last an hour, with continuous 15-minute extensions. As long as someone was in the room, the meeting would remain active. Try doing that in a hotel. Furthermore, all participants can access a whiteboard or the screen-sharing function. Public meetings are viewable by all users in the meeting center, but you may also create hidden and password-protected rooms. A calendar shows all the public conferences during the day and week. Inside the chat room a moderator can grant permission to a user for taking control of a shared screen, editing the whiteboard, speaking in the room or becoming the new moderator or group. Users can also click a button marked "raise hand" when they wish to "speak" without interrupting the conversation.

Lotus IM's polling feature is more robust than any of the others we tested. You can do short answer, true/false, yes/no or multiple-choice polls with unlimited options. We put five new logo designs on the whiteboard and asked people to pick their three favorites. Poll results are sent back to the originator, who can view the number of responses as a raw number, by percent of the whole and via a bar graph. The originator can let all participants see the results or keep the poll anonymous. The only rub is that the people being polled must be in the same chat room. You also can do a "Web poll," which opens a Web page on each user's machine.

Of all Lotus Instant Messaging's features, only its reporting capabilities leave something to be desired. You can see who logged in, the number of active meetings, and who is using tools such as the whiteboard and videoconferencing. Recorded meetings are replayed in real time, and you can fast forward or rewind through them. However, message text is not centrally logged by default. You need to use the software developer's kit and write your own, or use a third-party add-on product, such as IMlogic's IM Manager.

IBM Lotus Instant Messaging, IBM, (800) IBM-4YOU, (617) 577-8500. www.lotus.comWith its highly customizable client executable, e/pop Professional is the most security-conscious of the products we tested. If only it had some of the feature sophistication of IBM's offering--most notably, chat room, moderation and polling--e/pop might have surpassed the rest.With e/pop, changed settings are rewritten into the client executable, so there is no config file that someone else could modify. You can disable file transfers, chat rooms, client shutdown, and so forth. You can also put in a server password that won't let anyone connect to your server. This is designed to prevent users from getting around the executable restrictions you set.

Of the products we tested, only e/pop uses the ICQ message interface, which resembles an e-mail thread, rather than AIM's chat-room model for sending messages. Some users will despise you; others will kiss your toes. Within that interface, e/pop lets you perform screen sharing, view a user's processes table, remote reboot and remotely specify a command to run, all with the user's permission.

The e/pop system contains a few unique features, including a built-in spell-checker and thesaurus, and you can set a message to expire after a certain number of minutes or at a specified time.

Although e/pop's polling capability is simple, it's enough for the basics. You can create clickable reply buttons in a message and broadcast that message to multiple users, groups or the entire organization. Unfortunately, you can't specify which groups a user may broadcast to.

E/pop provides global lists for administrators and personal contact lists for users. The admin can preset users and groups and allow browsing of the Active Directory tree, as well as create profiles that contain lists of users or groups. We could create multiple profiles, but assigning a profile to a user is a manual process that's not tied into directory groupings.E/pop's reporting capabilities blow the competition away. You can search and browse any IM or chat conversation. The search option lets you limit results by time, keyword, user, group or IM server. Multiple admins can be created for the reporting component, and these access controls can be set so they are limited to searching their own users or departments. Also included is a content filter. We specified a few keywords of colorful language, and any messages containing those words automatically showed up for administrator review.

e/pop Professional, WiredRed Software, (888) 665-EPOP, (858) 715-0970. www.wiredred.comSun's Instant Collaboration Pack integrates with, but does not require, a Sun ONE Portal Server. But unless you value excellent moderator and access-control abilities above all else, the other products we tested might suit your organization better.

Portal server integration adds single sign-on and access-control capabilities. You can specify which users in the directory are permitted to use IM; otherwise, anyone in the directory can use it. We tested the product using Active Directory. However, on its own, the Instant Collaboration Pack is one of the best values of the products in this roundup on a feature-for-feature basis. In this release, there is no conversation logging, and access logs are limited and must be searched manually. Sun recently released version 6.0 (the vendor skipped a few version numbers), which is said to have improved logging, but this release was in beta during our tests, so we stuck with the shipping version.

The client software is a pure Java applet that can run in a Web browser but can also run separately if you use the Java Web Start program. We found no real difference using either method. That's the only positive comment we can make about the interface. This IM program's unique way of showing chat/IM conversations, in one tabbed window, reminded us of Opera's and Mozilla's tabbed browsing. You'll love it or hate it. Furthermore, the built-in sounds reminded us of a bad Atari video game, and the alert message tone will scare you the first few times.

Beyond regular IMs and one-way alert messages, Sun's product can send messages to offline users. Users can leave a status message, such as "Gone home," and elect to receive messages while offline; upon next login, the messages appear. A news-board feature let users post announcements that other users can read later. We could create multiple message boards and limit who could post to them, and users would be able to choose which to subscribe to. We could also post Web pages here.

Sun's chat rooms offer the best moderator and access-control capabilities, even without the Portal Server. Moderators have the power to control who can read, write, manage and deny access to users, and can assign specific rights to individual users and a default right for everyone else. Moderators can also screen and approve messages before letting them be posted into the room, to manage large Q&A conferences smoothly. A chat room can have multiple moderators, and each will get a copy of the screened message. The product also supports polls, but unlike IBM's solution, you get only individual responses rather than a final tally count.

Sun ONE Portal Server: Instant Collaboration Pack 3.0.1, Sun Microsystems. (800) 786-7638, (650) 960-1300.

Michael J. DeMaria is an associate technology editor based at Network Computing's Syracuse University Real-World Labs®. Write to Michael at [email protected].

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Jabber Extensible Communications Platform (XCP) 2.5 | Gordano Messaging Suite 8.02 | Microsoft Exchange 2000 Instant Messaging Service | Ipswitch Instant Messenger 1.0

Jabber Extensible Communications Platform (XCP) 2.5

Jabber's XCP is the only IM server we tested that runs on Linux or Solaris. Although the client interface is simple, there's no easy administration interface. You have to edit an XML file manually in a text editor to make changes, a process that makes playing with sendmail configs on a Saturday night seem fun.

The client interface, called the Jabber Messenger, has strong privacy and control features, such as a unique contact list confirmation requirement. If you want to add a user to your buddy list, the other user must approve it.Jabber lets users broadcast messages and alerts, but lacks polls and surveys. Chat rooms are not moderated, but you can create private and protected rooms, as well as public rooms that appear in a list for users to browse. You can create "available," "away" and "do not disturb" status messages; we could not send messages or alerts to

any user in "do not disturb" mode. Users can also integrate weather, ESPN and ABC News reports into the Jabber Messenger. Access to public IM networks (AOL, Yahoo, MSN) is available through an open-source gateway.

You can customize message logs to include whatever data you want or don't want, including the full message text. This data is stored in a flat text file, so you'll need to analyze it with an external tool. Jabber also can forward presence information to another server silently. For example, you can forward user logon/logoffs to an intranet Web server.

Jabber XCP is based on the open protocol XMPP. Although Jabber is the only vendor in our roundup that uses this protocol, many other vendors and IM clients use it, too. Many open-source Jabber clients will work with XCP.

Jabber eXtensible Communications Platform, Jabber, (303) 308-3231. www.jabber.comGordano Messaging Suite 8.02

This messaging suite works as an add-on to the Gordano Webmail suite. Unlike the Lotus add-on, the Gordano suite neither provides nor recommends using a stripped-down installation, nor does it offer enough features to make you consider adopting its Webmail system to get just the IM software. That said, if you're already invested in Gordano, the two are well-integrated and come at the low price of less than $1 per client.

This product's frustrating user interface needs a revamp. It allows no formatting in its messages, and managing buddy lists and the address book are tedious tasks. Furthermore, the suite provides no broadcast messages, no polling capabilities and no moderated chat rooms.

The Gordano Messaging Suite has a few redeeming values. In the Webmail component, you can see if the message sender is online and instantly reply directly from the e-mail message. No other vendor has this sort of e-mail integration. A user can have all instant messages e-mailed to himself or herself at the end of a conversation and can specify a recommended action to be taken when he or she is offline. At 91 cents per client for IM and mail, this product is a pretty good value, but may be a bit limiting for installations that involve thousands of users.

Gordano Messaging Suite, Gordano, (877) 292-1142.

Microsoft Exchange 2000 Instant Messaging Service

Sure, Microsoft IM service is free and convenient if you use Exchange, but even then, it's far more limited than the other products we tested. There are no public chat rooms (though one IM can involve multiple people), no moderator capabilities and no editable user status messages. We like being able to say why we're away and when we expect to return. The screen-sharing capabilities are very good, but that's only if you're using Windows XP. Note that we did not examine "Greenwich," which is Microsoft's next-generation release, now in beta.Clients connect using MSN Messenger (or Windows Messenger for XP users). You can also integrate with the public MSN network. Unfortunately, we constantly received messages that said, "To use this feature you must be logged into .Net Passport." We're also unhappy that this product doesn't support groups; all our contacts appeared in one long list and were stored on the end-user machine rather than on the server.

Only Windows XP users can take advantage of screen sharing and whiteboards. Those lucky XP users can lock and take control of the whiteboard so that no one else can draw at the same time. In addition, though multiple people can use IM like a chat room, no public chat rooms are built into Windows Messenger. Setting up public chat rooms requires a separate IRC client.

Exchange 2000 Instant Messaging Service, Microsoft Corp., (800) 936-3500 (product support), (800) 426-9400 (sales), (425) 882-8080.

Ipswitch Instant Messenger 1.0

At less than $700, Ipswitch's IM may be inexpensive, but its chat, management and reporting features are second-rate. You can authenticate against an NT domain and see the list of users in the domain. You can use an Active Directory domain via backward compatibility, but can't see any AD groups, so all your users end up in a long list. To its credit, this product allows contact lists to have nested groups, which is one feature nobody else offers.

If you send a message to an offline user, the user receives it on the next login. You can also leave an offline status. A user can create custom away messages and assign a hot-key combination to put them up.The product doesn't offer any screen- or whiteboardsharing capabilities and cannot create public chat rooms. There are no moderator abilities either. This product is so basic that it offers no compelling reason to spend even the low $695 it boasts, beyond getting your users off AIM as inexpensively as possible.

Ipswitch Instant Messenger, Ipswitch, (781) 676-5700. www.ipswitch.comInstant messaging has made it to the corporate desktop. There's no stopping this tsunami, so you'd better make sure your organization's employees have a secure way to pass those messages.

Instant messaging saves space on the e-mail server and reduces long-distance bills, and the latest corporate IM products provide a host of collaboration features, such as chat rooms, conferences, screen sharing, whiteboards, video and broadcast announcements. The products that made the cut for our review are installed locally and don't rely on the public Internet. In other words, the passwords never leave your network. These IM solutions, from Gordano, IBM, Ipswitch, Jabber, Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems and WiredRed Software, can be rolled out to as many as 5,000 people.

We gave our Editor's Choice award to IBM Lotus Instant Messaging because of its outstanding interface, access control and great IM capabilities, including chat and polling. The program will set you back a cool $190,000 for 5,000 users, but if you've invested in a Lotus Domino server, this is by far your best option.

Business applications white papers and research reportsBusiness applications books

Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol Working Group

"Managing IM: Keep E-Mail as Fallback in Move to Real Time"

"Instant Messaging Gets Down to Business"

"How Instant Messaging Works""10 Tips for Using Instant Messaging for Business"

"Before Instant Messaging--Awareness"


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