Groupware: The Cornerstone of Knowledge Management

The groupware packages that dominated the enterprise landscape of the mid-to-late 1990s were blindsided by the advent of knowledge management as a critical business strategy. They have recovered, and as we move into the next century, groupware is poised to play a leading role in knowledge management strategies.

For the purposes of this review, we decided to look at leading groupware portfolios -- Notes/Domino from Lotus Development Corp., GroupWise from Novell Inc., and Exchange from Microsoft Corp. -- to see how each stacked up to the new demands of knowledge management. In particular, we investigated how each package will fit into a corporate knowledge management strategy.

We tested the newest packages from each vendor: Exchange 5.5 with Service Pack 3 installed, GroupWise 5.5, and the Lotus Domino/Notes R5.0.2a combination.

Microsoft’s next version of Exchange, dubbed Exchange 2000, will be the primary purveyor of the company’s knowledge management strategy, but we chose Exchange 5.5 for two reasons. First, it’s available now and it wouldn’t be fair to compare a beta of Exchange 2000 with the other products, both of which have been through several revisions. Second, Exchange 2000 requires Windows 2000. Although available, the operating system is not widely deployed. So we stuck with the three products that administrators are faced with today when choosing a groupware solution.

We installed all three groupware suites on an AMD test machine, a 750-MHz Athlon-based system with 512 MB of RAM and a 36 GB Ultra160 SCSI Atlas 10 K storage drive from Quantum Corp. (www.quantum.com). We used a robust Ultra2 SCSI 3950U2W controller card from Adaptec Corp. (www.adaptec.com). Our test server runs Windows NT 4.0, Enterprise Edition, with Service Pack 5 installed.

Microsoft Exchange

Using Microsoft Exchange Server 5.5 for this review put Exchange at a disadvantage. Both Notes/Domino and GroupWise offer comparatively more robust knowledge management and collaborative capabilities than Exchange.

Due to its tight integration with Windows NT and the rest of the BackOffice components, Exchange is by far the easiest of the three suites to install. We installed Exchange onto the same Windows NT 4.0, Enterprise Edition, box that functioned as the primary domain controller (PDC) in our test environment. Exchange’s directory service must synchronize user information with a Windows NT PDC to function properly.

Exchange is managed through Microsoft’s Exchange Administrator console, which is a powerful tool that provides all-in-one management of the Exchange environment. We found Exchange Administrator to be the most intuitive and easiest to use of the three tools.

Exchange’s capabilities as an enterprise mail server are impressive because of its ability to combine raw speed with the groupware amenities of traditional LAN-based messaging systems. That said, Exchange offers a number of e-mail options, including the ability to track messages and provide receipt, read, and delete message confirmations.

We found Exchange’s POP3, SMTP, and IMAP services to be on par with other Internet standards-based mail server platforms, such as Netscape’s Enterprise Mail Server. Of the three groupware packages reviewed, Exchange is by far the speediest in terms of message routing, delivery, and information store access.

As mentioned above, Exchange gets a bit thin outside of its messaging capabilities. On the groupware side, Exchange provides traditional groupware functionality such as scheduling, intranet and Internet newsgroup support, chat services, and contact management. But it lacks native support for document management, workflow, knowledge management, or the ability to write applications custom-designed to interface with it. In these areas Exchange is a poor cousin to both GroupWise 5.5 and Notes/Domino R5.

GroupWise

In the past, GroupWise was regarded as a top-notch messaging and collaboration platform. It was, however, hobbled by its singular reliance upon Novell’s NetWare operating system. Even organizations that deployed Novell Directory Services (NDS) in conjunction with platforms other than NetWare were still required to have a NetWare server somewhere in the mix to effectively implement GroupWise. With the unveiling of Novell’s revamped NDS eDirectory product in late 1999, this is no longer the case. Suddenly GroupWise went from being a strong contender in homogeneous NetWare environments to a strong contender challenging Lotus’ Notes/Domino as the best cross-platform groupware solution available.

Installing GroupWise was the most complex undertaking of the three packages. For GroupWise to be configured effectively, an NDS eDirectory -- or vanilla NDS -- has to be installed. This can create problems for administrators unfamiliar with the inner workings of Novell’s enterprise directory services.

We installed and configured NDS eDirectory on our Windows NT server, which went off without a hitch. Defining the NDS forest and configuring manageable NDS resources and volumes took the better part of an hour, and then we were ready to install GroupWise.

Installing GroupWise was essentially a trouble-free experience. Once installed, we managed GroupWise through Novell’s NetWare administrator, which is automatically installed along with NDS. We imagine that NetWare Administrator provides a comfortable management environment for seasoned NetWare administrators, but we found its management interface a bit imposing. In any event, the administrative learning curve was definitely steeper on GroupWise than it was on either Exchange or Notes/Domino.

Using Novell’s flagship groupware and collaborative solution, however, was a revealing experience: It is a powerful environment.

GroupWise’s collaborative and knowledge management features are enabled on the surface by its Universal Mailbox, an information store that holds all data types: e-mail, faxes, documents, discussions, schedules, spreadsheets, and tasks. In this regard, GroupWise’s Universal Mailbox is a top-notch collaborative and workflow tool. We were able to track the status of messages, documents, and faxes -- in short, any kind of information resource recognizable by GroupWise. We saw when messages were received, who received them, as well as when they were opened.

We also found GroupWise’s workflow capabilities to be impressive, offering support for workflow models that Novell defines as either sequential workflow or broadcast workflow. This allowed us to send workflow orders to individual users or entire groups of users. GroupWise’s workflow intelligence also was a winner: As one of us completed a mock sequential workflow order, GroupWise automatically forwarded it to the next recipient. When we tested GroupWise’s broadcast workflow capabilities, we received a message in our Universal Mailbox telling us when all recipients had completed the workflow tasks.

As far as knowledge management goes, Novell’s NDS is GroupWise’s greatest asset. NDS is everything that Microsoft hopes its forthcoming Active Directory will be, and GroupWise leverages NDS as its information store underpinning. Every networked resource in an NDS environment is managed as an object in NDS, which puts the aggregate knowledge base of a corporate entity -- from actual structured information resources to the unstructured expertise that is possessed by individual employees -- at the GroupWise user’s browsing fingertips.

Lotus Notes/Domino

Lotus’ Notes/Domino combination is billed as "superhuman software," and with good reason. During our test of Notes/Domino, we discovered its aggregate capabilities were well beyond the reach of the average user.

We installed Domino Application Server R5.0.2a on our Windows NT server and experienced an essentially trouble-free setup process. While not as intuitive or easy to configure as Microsoft Exchange, Domino didn’t require the additional complexity of an NDS underpinning to get it up and running.

Domino provides the ability to centrally modify client configurations and end users’ desktops. In addition, we noted that Domino also enables administrators to determine which Domino server certain clients must connect to during startup, a feature that helps distribute the load in large enterprise environments.

Best of all, Domino consolidates all management functionality into a single console interface. Anything we wanted to do -- add new users, implement SMTP routing, or define the parameters for its own native search engine -- could be done from within Domino’s elegant management console.

Domino’s native database is one of its strongest features, and alone makes it a groupware and knowledge management solution par excellence. The Domino Designer, which ships with Notes R5, provides an intuitive environment in which to develop applications for use with Domino’s application server and database. In addition, Domino also ships with its own directory service, called the directory catalog. The Domino directory catalog shouldn’t be confused with a full-scale directory service like NDS, however.

We issue one caveat with Domino: Its power as an application server and its native capabilities as a relational data store are likely to tempt IT administrators to deploy it in implementations for which it is not best suited. Domino makes a great database for knowledge sharing between end users, such as among sales representatives who want to collect and share data about clients with others in the company. The product, however, is a subpar transactional database performer. Opting for Domino as the relational data store for a largely transaction-oriented application instead of a solution based on a database from Oracle Corp. (www.oracle.com) would have serious repercussions. The application works, but is unwieldy and can take extended periods of time to process standard or ad hoc queries.

Wrap-Up

As far as knowledge management and advanced collaboration go, both Novell’s GroupWise and Lotus Notes/Domino offer decisive advantages over Exchange Server. In particular, GroupWise’s ability to leverage the power, scalability, and information resources of NDS on any of a number of platforms, combined with its newfound independence from NetWare by virtue of Novell’s NDS eDirectory product, give it new relevance and make it a compelling choice -- particularly if you already have or are planning to deploy NDS.

Lotus’ Notes/Domino is indeed an outstanding groupware and application server platform. During our brief test, we didn’t come close to exhausting the possibilities of its implementation, usage, and management features. Because of its ability to run on any of a number of platforms and the breadth and depth of its feature-set, Notes/Domino R5 is the best overall groupware solution shipping today.

Companies looking for a very fast messaging solution with some collaborative capabilities that integrate well with Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000, and the rest of the BackOffice Suite will find Exchange Server 5.5 a good fit. Companies that need advanced document management, workflow, or knowledge management capabilities are better off looking at either GroupWise or Notes/Domino. Exchange’s knowledge management portfolio -- which is almost nonexistent in version 5.5 -- will be substantially revamped in Exchange 2000. The new version will leverage Active Directory, feature workflow management, and include a Webstore feature that provides an XML-interface to structured and unstructured data types.

Exchange Server 5.5

Microsoft Corp.
www.microsoft.com
(800) 426-9400

+ Fastest messaging and mail platform of the three tested groupware suites

+ Tight integration with Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000

+ Simple administration

- Lacks the complete knowledge management portfolio of either GroupWise or Notes/Domino

- Exchange administrators must create individual Windows NT domain user accounts for all Exchange recipients

- Runs only on Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000

GroupWise 5.5
Novell Inc.
www.novell.com
(888) 321-4272

+ Runs on Solaris and Windows NT, in addition to NetWare

+ Includes robust knowledge management, document management, and workflow capabilities

+ Supports Microsoft's Outlook 98 and Outlook 2000 clients, in addition to GroupWise clients

- Limited applicability to environments in which NDS has been deployed

- Requires familiarity with NDS concepts and best practices

- Comparatively more difficult to administer than either Exchange or Notes/Domino

Lotus Notes/Domino R5.0.2a
Lotus Development Corp.
www.lotus.com
(617) 577-8500

+ Most powerful, scalable, and robust groupware suite tested

+ Offers a proven, scalable environment for developing and supporting collaborative applications

+ Runs on the widest variety of platforms of any of the three tested groupware suites

- Dizzying array of features and configuration options is not for the uninitiated

- Requires more system resources -- memory allocation, processor power, fast disk access -- than GroupWise or Exchange

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