Surmounting Corporate Boundaries
Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC uses p-to-p software to share data with its partners.
Large companies relying on in-house knowledge to maintain market dominance have highly evolved IT systems for capturing, storing and analyzing that knowledge.
Just take GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK). The $27.5 billion, London-based pharmaceutical firm is a Lotus Notes shop. It uses an array of customized Notes templates and databases to track just about everything it does. The same goes for its research and development division (R&D), which has a $4 billion annual budget. "Especially in R&D, we use Notes extensively for users to track their agendas and activities, action items, documents, calendars, things like that," says Bill Wood, director of collaborative computing research for R&D at GSK. The groupware discipline at GSK runs deep; to start any new project, a manager first opens up a new Domino template.
The problem: Capturing external knowledge, and discretely sharing internal knowledge, weren't possible. GSK works extensively with outside labs, companies, universities and suppliers around the world, but neither Notes nor the in-house instant messaging program, Lotus Sametime, are able to communicate beyond the corporate firewall, except to another Lotus Notes server. GSK needed to easily and automatically integrate its partners' work into its mission-critical Notes set-up.
As a workaround, e-mail alone wouldn't suffice, and it's insecure. An intranet-based approach was out too; it wouldn't work outside the firewall. GSK also nixed giving every partner or supplier a Notes server because of the cost of rollout and support.
The company looked at other solutions and began an evaluation of Groove, software from Beverly, Mass.-based Groove Networks Inc., in April 2001. Groove uses a peer-to-peer (p-to-p) network. Instead of connecting users through a centralized serverthe traditional network approach (and the approach Notes takes)Groove can connect computers directly to each other.
|Product Information |
Groove Version 2
Groove Networks Inc.
P-to-p gained notoriety through Napster, which allowed users to share music files directly between PCs. Groove is aimed at the corporate market. It provides what Andrew Mahon, Groove's director of product marketing, dubs "a collaborative environment" for small groupstypically 2 to 20 peoplethat are meeting together remotely or working on projects. Wood likes Groove's pedigree (Ray Ozzie is Groove's chairman and CEO and is the creator of Lotus Notes), saying Notes moved corporate e-mail from the mainframe to the PC. "Now with Groove, Ray has taken the next step and eliminated the central corporate PC server, and figured out how to bypass the firewall. As IT professionals, we want to be sure our company data is secure and backed up; and we're happy not to roll out more server infrastructure than necessary."
Groove gives users in a project team a "workspace" they can use to message each other in real time, share files, store information, or collaborate by using real-time collaborative tools such as electronic white boards.
Behind the scenes, the Groove Relay Serverwhich Groove Networks hosts for GSKkeeps track of which peers are currently available. The relay server also keeps backups of all Groove workgroups, and synchronizes workspaces when users first log on, or when another project team member adds or changes something.
In general, Groove has been used for "developing proposals, finalizing legal documents, and managing the production of biological products," notes Wood. For instance, a New Zealand company is manufacturing biological cultures for GSK, and every day a researcher saves a status report into his shared Groove workspace, along with a picture of the latest batch. "It's useful because we need to keep a close eye on how the batches are coming along and, what the cultures look like," says Wood. As soon as another member of the same GSK project team logs into his workspace, it's updated with all project workspace "deltas," and he can view a picture of the latest batch. Wood says the ability to share information so quickly produced an "immediate benefit" and noticeable productivity boost from teams using Groove.
Although GSK liked what it saw in its 2001 Groove Version 1 trial runs, it had security and data backup concerns. Groove addressed them in Version 2, which GSK approved for its rollout. At press time, the company plans to make Groove available to small, 25- to 50-person GSK teams working with outside companies.
Groove's data transfer and information security is handled through "bots." Bots perform specific tasks, such as archiving discussions or answering questions. Wood says it's "an interesting way to make data available inside the company available outside the company, but securely." Most important, it works through GSK's firewall. Groove servers (hosted by Groove for ease of administration) wrap the encrypted message in HTTP and route it through port 80 on the target machine.
Wood expects to save IT time and administration costs by using Groove. Instead of IT assigning user names and permissions for various usernames or Lotus Notes workspaces, Groove puts the onus on users. "Notes is customizable but does require some technical skill. Groove streamlines the process by allowing users to add ‘tabs' of tools appropriate to their work, and additionally has a simple forms-building capability," notes Wood.
The faster users can get started, the better; speed and time are money. "Once the team is running, the ease of sharing impacts the amount of time spent on ensuring that everyone has access to the same information, and that it's organized effectively. Groove helps teams run more smoothly. It's hard to put costs on it. How much would it cost a team to not use the phone on a project?" Wood asks.
There's a small learning curve, though not from learning the user interface. "It's more in what to expect from Groove when it's transferring data or showing who else is online," Wood notes. When the user's Internet connection isn't very good, or if there are firewalls the information has to go through, then things can be "not quite real time sometimes," he says. That's particularly true for voice-over-IPusing Groove like a conference callor for real-time chat. He notes that Version 2 is better. Also improved are synchronization times, which were long enough for users to notice (and complain about).
Details: GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)
Team Leader: Bill Wood, director of collaborative computing research for R&D.
Business/Mission: Pharmaceutical company's research and development division (R&D).
Location: Bill Wood is based in Upper Marion, Penn. GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) has headquarters in London, UK.
Web Site: http://science.gsk.com/
Goal: GSK uses Lotus Notes to track every aspect of a project, but it needed to provide access to outside partners to share updates and information.
Equipment/Platform: Lotus Notes groupware and Lotus Sametime instant messaging software.
Solution: By using Groove, GSK was able to share information in a peer-to-peer (p-to-p) fashion between project team members, even through firewalls.
Timeline: GSK started evaluations in April 2001; in September 2001 it postponed the project until product problems were fixed, perhaps in the next version. GSK beta tested version 2.0 in early 2002, then gave the green light for an August 2002 rollout.
Product: Groove Version 2, from Groove Networks Inc. (hosted by Groove).
Alternatives Considered: E-mail (insecure), intranet (couldn't pass firewall), supply Notes servers to suppliers and partners (high cost).
Results: Project teams can more efficiently share needed information. Bill Wood notes that there was an "immediate benefit." Reduced IT and admin costs: Users can customize their workspace, and Groove provides a forms-building feature.
Lessons Learned: Synchronization times were long, but that has been improved in the most recent version.
Future Plans: Wood says Groove will be used beyond R&Din the company at large. "It's [good for] anywhere small teams need to have discussions, share agendas and documents and potentially more sophisticated applications, like DNA sequence topology," says Wood.
Mathew Schwartz is a Contributing Editor for Enterprise Systems and is its Security Strategies column, as well as being a long-time contributor to the company's print publications. Mr. Schwartz is also a security and technology freelance writer.