Managing IM's Role in Business

Tuesday Jul 15th 2003 by Drew Bird
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A look at strategies enabling your company to tackle the problems -- and harness the potential -- of enterprise instant messaging. Second in a back-to-basics series on enterprise IM for IT decision-makers.

This week, InstantMessagingPlanet is going back to the basics. We're pleased to bring you a series of articles covering the fundamentals of enterprise instant messaging and what you need to know as an IT decision-maker: on what exactly enterprise IM is, why and how best to leverage it, ideas for purchasing an enterprise IM solution, and some examples of best-practices in leveraging IM technology.

As we saw in Part One of our weeklong guide on the fundamentals of enterprise instant messaging, many businesses now use the technology as an important element of their communications structure. But while some companies have proactively embraced IM as a key business application, many more are reacting after finding that IM has spread virally into their networks and become a critical part of their day-to-day businesses -- but largely without authorization and oversight.

Today's article will look at some of the different implementation strategies available to enterprises looking to make sure that IM becomes a communications solution, rather than a communications problem. Tomorrow, we'll cover some of the specific features that IT buyers need to consider in choosing an enterprise solution for IM.


Companies face a difficult choice, now that they're coming to understand some of the issues associated with the use of instant messaging in their businesses. They can either block IM -- potentially alienating employees who have come to rely on it as a communications tool -- or they can take steps to manage its use. Many, as you might expect, are choosing the latter, and are looking for ways to start overseeing and controlling IM.

Most of the potential problems stem from the fact that free public IM clients and networks (like AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and MSN Messenger) do not offer security, monitoring, logging, or any other features commonly associated with corporate IT applications. Indeed, managing IM use is a problem being identified as one of the major IT challenges facing business today -- but executives are unsure of where to begin, explained Jon Sakoda, Director of Products at IMLogic, a company that produces IM management software.

"CIOs know that IM is being used, but they have no idea who is using it or what they are saying on it," Sakoda said. "These same CIOs approve monitoring and control of other forms of communication and realize that IM is no different."

There are generally two models that businesses are using to bring IM use under their control. One is for to implement an IM "gateway" application, of which there are a number available. The other is for an enterprise to implement its very own, in-house IM system independent of the public networks. We'll look at IM management systems first.

IM Gateways

IM gateways allow a company's IT staff to control and manage the use of public IM systems within the organization, which means employees can continue using their current, familiar IM clients, and thus, their existing IM networks and contact lists. Because the messaging infrastructure is hosted by the public network provider (e.g., AOL, MSN or Yahoo!,) gateways also provide many of the capabilities available with in-house enterprise IM (EIM) solutions at a fraction of their cost.

These IM gateway systems work by acting as a proxy, intercepting all IM traffic -- including logons, conversations, and file transfers -- and logging and approving that communication. For example, when a corporate user starts his or her AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) client, the logon request is captured by the IM proxy. The IM proxy then okays and relays the user's logon to the AIM network, acting as an intermediary between the local client and the remote IM server. By interceding in this way, the IM proxy is able to examine and apply controls to the IM traffic to and from that user.

IM gateways then can typically enforce a number of additional safeguards on messaging activity -- for instance, they can implement virus scanning on received files, can block specific users from chatting externally or at all, and even apply content filtering. Content filtering is of special interest to enterprises concerned about compliance issues or corporate secrecy. For example, if a user were to mention "Project X" in an IM, the message could be blocked or the user's manager notified of the communication.

Additionally, IM proxies have robust reporting and logging systems allowing administrators and managers to review IM conversations. This has many advantages, such as ensuring that productivity is not being compromised by personal IM use, and that disclosure and industry regulations are being followed.

As with any other form of communications monitoring, use of IM gateways can be invisible to the user, or the systems often can display warning notifications that users' conversations could be logged. In addition, managers also typically also distribute reminders to employees that, as a enterprise-administered application, IM should be treated by users with the same care as e-mail.

IM gateways are typically licensed on an annual, per-user basis.

Enterprise Instant Messaging

While some companies look to apply controls on top of public IM, others are looking at a more comprehensive solution. Looking for an even greater degree of control and privacy, some businesses opt to implement an Enterprise Instant Messaging, or EIM, system.

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EIM systems are standalone IM systems hosted and operated entirely within the organization. Such systems allow businesses to implement IM management and logging while also bringing the entire messaging infrastructure in-house, removing concerns about security and privacy that arise when outsourcing.

They're also designed to function similarly to other enterprise applications; for instance, EIM systems often include centralized management and directory and user privileging integration with corporate directory systems like LDAP.

EIM systems also typically offer enterprise developers a level of user interface customization and compatibility with existing or legacy software not found with public IM. That paves the way for integration of IM and presence with other enterprise applications, like e-mail clients, portals, and Supply Chain Management solutions.

If there is a drawback to EIM systems, it would have to be that the tenant around which they are designed -- in-house administration -- often limits their usefulness. That's because few EIM systems support exchanging messages with the public networks, a fact that undermines the benefits of omnipresent public IM and seamless communications with partners or clients outside the firewall. (Instead, external users would have to be provisioned corporate accounts on the server and an EIM client.)

Some vendors are aiming to make that process fairly simple. Sun tackles outside communications by extending corporate portal-based IM to external users; once an outside party is registered on a corporate directory, they login to the corporate portal, connect to IM services via secure VPN-on-demand, and communicate using Java-based IM and contact list "portlets."

"By providing secure IM access via a portal, we can provide cross-company IM functionality," said Dan Graves, Sun Microsystems' Group Product Manager, Real Time Messaging. "Although this does not provide cross-network interoperability, which does need to happen in the future, it solves the problem in the near term."

Hybrid solutions

Other EIM vendors are working to safely link enterprise IM with public networks by working in tandem with gateway solutions. IBM has an agreement with AOL that allows AIM Buddies to be added to the contact list in its Lotus Instant Messaging platform (also called Sametime). The contacts aren't merged, however, and those conversations aren't logged -- although they can be, if the company shells out for a public IM gateway.

On the same theme, Microsoft's new Real-Time Communications Server (RTC) allows contacts from MSN Messenger to be added to RTC users' contact lists. As with Lotus, however, businesses must pay for a Microsoft-partnered third-party gateway to manage and relay messages from the public network to RTC.

While seeming like inelegant solutions to the problems of linking controlled, in-house EIM with external networks, such setups aren't without precedent. Other corporate data communication systems, like e-mail, often rely on gateway-like systems to connect to the outside world. Additionally, on both the corporate and national scale, there's the phone system.

"Many countries use different phone systems, yet you can place a call from any system to any system transparently," said Ed Simnett, Lead Product Manager from Microsoft's Real-Time Messaging and Platform Group. "In the same way, IM gateways will allow users from disparate IM systems to communicate with each other."

Adding gateways to EIM systems has the benefit of enabling each company to choose its EIM system based on its individual needs, while also being able to communicate with other organizations via the public network.

The big question of ROI

Of course, EIM software isn't free, and may even require additional investments in infrastructure to support it. Then, there's the potential for additional IT staff to set-up, maintain, and support an in-house system. Still, the added capabilities -- and potentially, piece of mind -- of a wholly in-house solution could justify increased expenses.

"You can run a public IM client, but you are not going to get the application integration, which is where the true cost benefits of IM are to be found," said Kevin McLellan, Marketing Manager, Workplace Collaboration Products, IBM Lotus software. "Add to that the additional security, control, logging, and management provided by an EIM system and it's easy to justify the additional costs created by using and EIM system."

In fact, McLellan said that IBM, having standardized on its own Lotus solution, has seen a decreased demand on its e-mail servers that's only somewhat offset by the additional load created by its IM servers.

On the other hand, the vendors selling IM gateways are increasing the features offered in their proxies in a bid to compete with EIM solutions for the IT dollar. Tomorrow, we'll discuss the specifics of which features IT decision-makers need to look for in choosing which vendor to choose, and which model of solution to implement.

Drew Bird is a contributor to our sister site IntranetJournal. Christopher Saunders, managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com, contributed to this story.

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